LinuxWorld: A chance to shine

The Linux community wants to show the OS is ready for prime time.
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor

There's a common work ethic among the ragtag group of Linux developers: get the technology right first, then tell the world about it.

Members of the Linux community will tell you that's the opposite of how the folks in Redmond do things. Microsoft, they say, focuses on the hype, even before the company has a product that supports it.

Not so with Linux. After years of toiling underground, Linux developers -- many of whom work on the alternative OS as a hobby in addition to their day job -- are ready to spread the religion. What with the recent release of the 2.2.0 kernel behind them, Linux developers are bragging that the OS is ready for prime time, and they're turning to business suit-clad marketing professionals to help them get the word out.

The forum: the upcoming LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Jose, California, where the geeks and glad handers will meet. The show, which gets into full swing Tuesday, will feature the usual Linux suspects and a group of new converts.

Many Linux vendors will focus on convincing people that support for Linux really exists. Some companies and IT workers have shied away from open source, fearing they would have no one to turn to if the system goes down. Open source software, such as Linux, allows users access to the source code, or building blocks, of the operating system, meaning virtually anyone can tinker with the program to quickly fix bugs or tailor it to special needs.

Red Hat Inc. will use the show to tout its recently launched round-the-clock support system. VA Research Inc. will unveil details of its support plans, and S.u.S.E. will plug its program, which is set to launch in the second quarter. Many also will use the forum to showcase their partners, hoping to bring other Linux users out of the closet and convince newbies to jump on board. VA Research and Pacific HiTech are promising major industry partners to boost their cause.

Linux companies also will introduce new products. Pacific HiTech plans to unveil its TurboLinux Server and Enterprise Server, as well as its Turbo Linux Server Cluster, which, in effect, will let a string of multiple Intel-based computers act as a larger workstation. Caldera is introducing several storage products. Red Hat will distribute copies of its Linux OS that will come with the Gnome desktop program.

Linux lovers credit the rise of the OS to several factors. First, they brag about the technology, it's low cost, and open source model. "I think people primarily like its stability," Mark Torres president of S.u.S.E., said. "The OS is wide-open for investigation." Then there's the reflex known as ABM: Anything but Microsoft. The company's legal woes have put a spotlight on business practices the DoJ claims are less than savoury, prompting some people to look for alternatives.

"There's a widespread sense that the empire is falling," Linux guru Eric Raymond said about Microsoft during the Windows Refund Day two weeks ago. Raymond came to the event dressed in an Obi-wan Kanobi robe featuring a penguin-lined hood -- as if to buoy his belief that the force is with him. The penguin is the adopted symbol of the Linux movement. "There is an increasing sense that prudent people should be hedging their bets," he said.

And many of them are. Adoption of the Linux tripled in 1998, growing faster than Windows NT, according to an International Data Corp. study. Pacific Hi Tech has sold one million copies of packaged Linux in Japan, outselling packaged versions of the MacOS. Red Hat sales have more than doubled. "The momentum and buzz surrounding this OS is incredible," Red Hat spokeswoman Melissa Leonard said.

The Linux community has managed to do what Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Scott McNealy and Oracle Corp.'s Larry Ellison have failed to do -- get a grassroots movement to rally around them. Nick Moffitt, who works at LinuxCare Inc., a new company designed to provide Linux support, said the perception exists that industry bigwigs such as Sun and Oracle just want to shove Microsoft out of the way, and then take its place. "They're fighting Microsoft on Microsoft's terms," he said. "The whole idea of open source is share and enjoy."

But the operating system still has a ways to go before becoming a serious contender. While analysts estimate that about 7.5 million computers are running Linux, that's tiny compared with the more than 250 million copies of Windows in use.

Right now, Linux is mainly making inroads in the server market, though projects such as Gnome, an attempt to develop a user-friendly interface, are spurring interest on the desktop, at least among Linux enthusiasts. Still missing are graphics programs, games and business presentation software to rival Windows-based products, a hole developers must fill if they have their eye on the desktop. "As applications go, so goes the OS," S.u.S.E.'s Torres said.

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