The next battleground: Linux vs. Windows?

The increasingly vocal freeware community has championed Linux as a real, viable alternative to Microsoft's Windows and NT for years. But the lack of a single, large backer has hampered the operating system's acceptance among many corporate customers, integrators and resellers.

The increasingly vocal freeware community has championed Linux as a real, viable alternative to Microsoft's Windows and NT for years. But the lack of a single, large backer has hampered the operating system's acceptance among many corporate customers, integrators and resellers.

That dynamic may be changing, in large part thanks to Netscape. Officially, Netscape joined the freeware camp as of this week by putting its Communicator 5.0 source code into the public domain.

Netscape's executive vice president of products Marc Andreessen, who spoke at the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group meeting, went on record espousing the potential market benefits of a Communicator plus Linux combination. Andreessen also reportedly committed to making Linux a reference platform equal in stature to Windows for future Netscape product releases.

Netscape's move couldn't have come at a better time for the freeware world. Next week, some of the leading voices in the freeware movement are slated to hold the first-ever Freeware Summit in Palo Alto, California. Representatives affiliated with Mozilla.org (the Netscape freeware arm), Apache, Linux, Perl, Python and Sendmail, among others, are slated to meet to discuss strategies for increasing public acceptance of their wares at the conference, which is being hosted by freeware advocates O'Reilly & Associates.

The freeware community is gaining additional backing from some unlikely places. "A year ago, Linux was seen as too much out of the mainstream. The lack of a single backer has hampered it getting a lot of notice. But now it's looking more interesting," said Jamie Love, director of Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology.

Last month, CPT sent letters to six of the top PC makers, requesting that they offer customers a choice of operating systems. CPT suggested Linux, BeOS and Apple Computer Corp.'s Rhapsody as possible alternatives to Windows that companies like Compaq, Dell, Gateway 2000, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Micron could offer.

Love said that Nader's organisation is testing a number of Linux flavors on different machines at its own offices.

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