Comdex: Linux not just for nerds anymore

The symbol of the alternative OS, Linux, penguins grace nearly every booth of the crowded cluster of companies that make up the Linux Pavilion. The large pavilion features only about a dozen booths, but on Tuesday morning each was chock-a-block with people looking to learn the latest about the OS.

The symbol of the alternative OS, Linux, penguins grace nearly every booth of the crowded cluster of companies that make up the Linux Pavilion. The large pavilion features only about a dozen booths, but on Tuesday morning each was chock-a-block with people looking to learn the latest about the OS.

The crowds are a change for Linux. Not the most user-friendly OS on the market, it is still mostly the domain of geeks and tech enthusiasts. But several companies are showcasing Linux-based office applications suites in the hopes of luring passers-by to at least think about dropping their Microsoft habits. Applix Inc., S.u.S.E., and Pacific HiTech are all demonstrating such applications, and many look surprisingly similar to their Microsoft counterparts.

Applix' Applixware lets users write documents and work within spreadsheets, as they can in Office. Users can also export and import Word and Excel documents, so they can function in a Microsoft-dominated world. Such office applications are a key to getting the consumer introduced to the wacky world of Linux, by putting a friendly face on the techie-geared OS.

Linux has been a boost to Applix, which has seen the market for other Unix products shrink in recent years. Plus, anything that nips at Microsoft is a good thing, said Richard Manly, director of product management for Applix. "I've gotten letters from people saying, 'Thank you Applix, I can finally delete the Microsoft partition from my drive,' " Manly said.

But he can't help feeling that Microsoft is using Linux as a pawn in its ongoing war with government trustbusters. "They see it as an opportunity to defend themselves against the government," Manly said. Prescott Pratt, who runs the computer system for the Snow College library in Snow College, Utah, said he came to the Linux Pavilion in search of low-cost technology. "I'm wondering if maybe I can find a better platform for our kids," he said. Pratt is going home with several versions of the OS -- which he bought for between $1 and $15 per CD. He'll try each and decide if Linux is for him.

Karl Fukushima, an IT manager for Bell South subsidiary Honolulu Cellular, said he's considering adding more Linux technology to his company's mish-mash of operating systems because he likes its reliability and power. "We're trying to keep an open mind," said Fukushima, whose company also runs on several flavours of Unix. "We're thinking of using it as a Web server or for intrusion detection," he said. Plus, he said, he hates the "blue screen of death" that appears when Windows NT conflicts with software that's already on a machine.

Even the University of Denver has found itself in the centre of the Linux movement -- although by accident. The school -- which is touting its distance learning program at Comdex -- was late to secure a booth. So it ended up being jammed in among the Linux companies.

That's not so bad, said college spokesman Wesley Lawton. "There's been great foot traffic, and a good flow of people coming through," he said. "We've gotten some leads because of it."

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