Comdex: Linux hits the pop charts

Scott McNeil, president of Linux distributor S.u.S.E.'s North American operations, is planning for his sojourn to Comdex, where he'll be showing off his wares as one of the high-profile companies in the show's growing Linux Pavilion.

Linux's increasing popularity reminds McNeil of his childhood, when he and his friends would listen to the songs played on the FM dial -- then the forum for alternative bands. "About six months later the songs would reach AM, and everybody would love them. We'd all be asking ourselves what all the fuss was about. This isn't new," McNeil muses. "Linux is kind of like that."

Clearly, Linux has yet to become a household name. But those in-the-know have been encouraged by the growing visibility and acceptance of Linux as a viable alternative to Windows NT and Unix. "People are coming to the realization that they should have a choice, and some are actually seeking it," London said

Industry heavyweights such as Oracle Corp. and IBM are working on Linux projects. Netscape Communications Corp. and Intel Corp. recently disclosed investments in Linux distributor Red Hat. And Linux is even becoming a burr in the saddle of Microsoft Corp., according to the so-called Halloween documents, which show company executives wringing their hands over Linux's increasing market share. (The sincerity of this anxiety should be weighed in light of the federal government's antitrust lawsuit, which has the company's lawyers taking special note of any technology it can call a competitor).

Because Linux works on the open source model, anyone can make changes to the code as long as they share them. The approach is at odds with proprietary systems, such as Microsoft Windows and IBM's OS/2, which are tightly controlled by their corporate owners. Linux supporters say all these factors make conditions right for their favorite operating system to win even more mainstream support. Many of them hope Comdex will prove to be the perfect forum for Linux to score more market breakthroughs.

S.u.S.E. will be showing off its version of Linux and showcasing its new suite of office applications. McNeil also plans to unveil some 3-D consumer technology he hopes will "create a buzz on the floor."

And buzz is what it's all about in the high-tech industry, especially at the Linux Pavilion, which will be tucked away in the less desirable Sands Expo and Convention Center, about two miles from the main exhibit hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Despite its less-than-prominent venue, Pavilion founder Mark Bolzern speaks of his creation -- and its skyrocketing popularity -- like a proud papa. When the Pavilion was first launched in 1995, only two companies showed up. This year, Bolzern expects 18 to 20. "People will see an area that has more Linux people than they knew existed," said Bolzern, a board member of the OS advocacy group Linux International. "People are really actively seeking Linux information, more than ever before."

In addition to S.U.S.E., companies on display will include: Red Hat -- which will show off the recently released 5.2 version of its OS -- and Linux Hardware Solutions, a company that preloads Linux onto computers. One of the barriers to Linux adoption has been the fact that it isn't preloaded, like other OSes such as Windows. People who want Linux on their machine often have to perform technological gymnastics to load it.

"Right now, Linux is still for power users and techies," Bolzern said. But Linux backers are hoping to change that, partly by showing people what the operating system can do.

Since Linux is somewhat of an underground movement, people usually have to seek out information and products on the Internet. The pavilion will give visitors a chance to see and touch the new packaged Linux products. Melissa London, a spokeswoman for Red Hat software, expects the Linux Pavilion to be jammed, despite its locale away from the main floor.

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