US Report: Linux gains ground -- but don't expect a quick install

The noise around Linux has quieted in recent weeks, and that's probably a good thing for this operating system cum new-age religion - because all the hype threatened to sink little Linux before it even started to really float.

Ralph Nader is at least partially to blame. In his attacks on Microsoft, he used Linux as an example of an alternative operating system that couldn't find a home on new PCs thanks to Microsoft's desktop stranglehold. Not long after, it seemed every computer magazine and newspaper on the stands had a Linux story to tell.

Today's Linux, even the easy-install versions such as Red Hat, can be enough to make the average end user run back to the welcoming arms of Windows. While most Windows and Mac users are familiar with point-and-clicking their way around, many Linux operations still require some knowledge of Unix-like commands.

Even Steven Miller, director of sales for Applix's office productivity suite (which comes in a Linux version), has a Linux story to tell. While he praises the operating system's reliability, he says the installation routines still need some tweaking. "We had a very competent engineer here install [Linux] on a laptop. It was an eight-hour chore. He had to go out and download some drivers to recognise the screen."

Bob Young, CEO at Red Hat, acknowledges that the operating system's ease of use can be further enhanced but he points to recent improvements in Red Hat Linux 5.1 as proof of his company's commitment to the process.

"Red Hat has made tremendous strides in terms of dealing with ease of use issues and the openness of the Linux Development model allows us to make rapid advances in that direction. With the recent release of Red Hat Linux 5.1, we've worked to ease installation through automatic hardware probing, partitioning and configuring, and we've worked to ease system administration and networking through the sophisticated graphical LinuxConf."

Things have also improved on the applications side. Both Applix and StarDivision ship complete office productivity suites for Linux that compete well with the likes of Microsoft Office for performing day-to-day business tasks. Netscape has long had Linux versions of its browsers that function similarly to the Windows and Mac versions, and Corel recently began selling a Linux version of WordPerfect.

And this week, database kings Oracle and Informix are expected to announce support for Linux. For now, however, Linux is still more a hobby than a business tool for many users. Aficionados say it is stable (far more than Windows), powerful and intellectually stimulating. It can also be frustrating on a scale that makes the DOS command line look warm and fuzzy. Had all the Linux hype actually convinced too many typical computer users to give it a try, the reports of their experiences could have damaged the OS's future.

The worst part is that Linux wouldn't be to blame. Its long-time proponents have been willing to covertly move their prize product into business environments while the OS and applications matured. According to Dan Kusnetzky, program director for Operating Environments and Serverware at IDC Research in the U.S., Linux server and desktop installations grew a respectable 20% between 1996 and 1997, even though some executives were unaware the software had infiltrated their organisations. A CIO at a large bank once told Kusnetzky that the company didn't use Linux. But lunch with lower-level IT people proved otherwise. According to them, the firm had some 100 Linux applications. Why the discrepancy? When the IT folks were told to build an intranet -- but provided no funding -- they used Linux to turn some old 386s and 486s into Web servers. It worked, and the CIO was none the wiser. That's fine for tech-savvy IT pros. but it's not the answer for most of the world's users. They need simplicity before they buy in and most Linux software still isn't on par with good Windows apps when it comes to installation and operating ease.

That should change as additional developers decide that the Linux market represents a chance to make money. But convincing them will require more Linux licenses, and that means even more IT departments surreptitiously making their companies dependent on the OS. If all goes well, it will happen, according to Kusnetzky. "Would an end user who is just focused on his or her business, like Linux? Not today," he says. "But there are a lot of people trying to make Linux more user friendly ... someone will do it."

He's not the only one who thinks so. Just last week, Linux developers and advocates met to discuss their favorite operating system's future. Ralph Nader wasn't there, and USA Today didn't report what the attendees said. But that's OK for now: The Linux makers still have some work to do before their baby is ready to take on the world.