Linux: Renegade OS lands in corporate laps

Linux garners support from IT giants such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystem.

Craig Nathan, the sandy-haired, twenty-something founder of Web software company MEconomy, was walking steadily toward the San Jose Convention Center to catch last week's LinuxWorld presentations when he noted a significant change from last year's Linux gathering: Big companies - Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, IBM, Sun Microsystems - were everywhere he turned. In fact, he was on his way to hear a keynote address by Hewlett-Packard's chief scientist, Joel Birnbaum.

What a difference a year makes.

MEconomy plans to produce open source code. According to Nathan, if he had approached venture capital firms with that idea a year ago, "they would have said, 'Absolutely not.' Now, with IBM and Sun behind Linux, it gives us instant credibility," he said, which will help the company as it approaches venture capitalists for the first time.

As Compaq, Dell, HP, IBM and Sun, along with other high-tech heavyweights such as Motorola and Silicon Graphics Inc., throw their weight behind the operating system created by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, Linux may be in its best position yet to challenge Microsoft and its OS' dominance.

Last week, in fact, Netcraft released statistics that showed Linux is now the most frequently used OS on active Web servers. Netcraft, an Internet technology research firm that polls more than 18 million sites, found that Linux nosed out Microsoft Windows NT/2000, 30 percent to 28.3 percent.

And, according to Torvalds and others, the best may be yet to come.

The Linux community is readying a beefed-up version of the OS - version 2.4. Many key Linux players are now backing a single user interface, Gnome, which may put to rest one of the biggest corporate hurdles. And Sun is offering its StarOffice suite of applications to the open source community, which may result in more robust Linux apps.

Last week, Torvalds said additions made by independent open source developer Ingo Molnar helped the OS rack up a computing speed record. The kernel patch made by Molnar produced the best ever SPECweb benchmark on an eight-processor Dell server. SPECweb is a Web server test suite developed by Standard Performance Evaluation that tests the downloads of static Web pages.

The changes add a "traffic cop" feature that hands off dynamic content, such Active Server Pages and Java, to Apache or some other regular Web server, which allows pages to be served up faster. Molnar's enhancements will be offered as an option by Red Hat when the version 2.4 kernel is available. Linux observers said its availability is imminent.

If Linux continues to dominate Web servers, it will likely gain further acceptance. And that's what the large vendors appear to be betting on.

Nowhere was the impact of corporate support more evident than in the announcement of the Gnome Foundation, a group of 13 companies - including Compaq, HP, IBM and Sun - that last week threw their full support behind a Linux user interface.

Sun Vice President Marco Boerries said Sun will adopt Gnome 2.0 as the user interface for its Solaris OS when it becomes available later this year. Martin Fink, HP's Unix lab director, said HP will adopt it next year.

Last year, a press conference on Gnome featured no mainstream companies and was dominated by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and originator of the open source code concept. Stallman insisted everyone in the room refer to Linux as "Gnu-Linux," since it was built using his foundation's Gnu tools. Gnome as a promising user interface got lost in the ensuing debate.

Sun also is donating its StarOffice desktop applications, including word processor, spreadsheet and presentation graphics program, to the Gnome Foundation for creation of the Gnome Office Suite. No date was set when the suite will become available. Experienced StarOffice users, such as Dave Sifry, chief technology officer at Linuxcare, a Linux support firm, said the applications are similar to Microsoft Office, with fewer bells and whistles. The word processor and spreadsheet also sport a high degree of compatibility with Office files, but the presentation graphics program shows minor incompatibilities with PowerPoint files.

StarOffice will make a nice addition to other Linux application choices. Corel in April launched its WordPerfect Office 2000 for Linux suite, priced at $159 for the Deluxe Edition; it includes the WordPerfect 9 word processor, Quattro Pro 9 spreadsheet, Presentations 9 presentation graphics program and Paradox 9 database. And VistaSource offers Applixware Office 5.0 for $99. It bundles a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation graphics program originally developed for Unix desktops.

In addition to Sun's contribution to Gnome Offce, Eazel has produced the Nautilus file management system. Bud Tribble, vice president of software engineering at Eazel and the original project leader for the Apple Computer Macintosh user interface project, said it can offer the user "one view of the proliferating file types" found on the Web, such as MP3 music files.

Advanced file management will give Gnome a better chance of competing with Windows, Tribble said, because it is more oriented to operations on the Internet. It will bookmark files found on the Web and let the user automatically go back to them for a repeat visit, rather than requiring everything to be imported to the desktop, he said.

Still, on the LinuxWorld show floor, the presence of the big companies was greeted with mixed enthusiasm.

"These companies see Linux as a great marketing tool," MEconomy's Nathan said. Still, he's troubled a bit by the commercialization of Linux. "It waters down a lot of the idealism. It used to be about me and how I was going to change the world with other open source developers," he said.

Others at LinuxWorld, however, were more pragmatic. "Linux is giving the big companies an opportunity to get out from under Microsoft's thumb," said Marc Perkel, wearing a black T-shirt with a show badge that listed his title as "Chief Nerd at Computer Tyme" Software Lab, a Web site publisher. "If the Justice Department doesn't do its job, then Linus [Torvalds] will finish it," he said.