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The Linux challenge
[Photo: AP]
Linux Torvalds wrote the code that became the core of the Linux operating system nearly 10 years ago.

By JULES ALLEN and DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2000


Long an operating system for technophiles, Linux is getting a new face and marketing push for the home user from softwaremaker Corel.

Linux began as a grass-roots movement to challenge the big-money establishment in computer operating systems. Thanks to the Internet, it caught on among tech-savvy computer users as an alternative operating system to the ubiquitous, crash-prone Microsoft Windows that many of them love to hate.

Now, the true believers in Linux are setting out to recruit the technologically challenged, the cautiously rebellious: the rest of us.

The effort to bring Linux to the masses is being led by a growing number of companies, including Corel, a veteran maker of graphics and word-processing software. It's no coincidence that Corel's Linux OS looks strangely familiar, from the globe icon that works like Windows' Start button to file menus and dialog boxes.

If it looks like Windows and if it works like Windows, Corel says, it may entice Windows users to try a more reliable operating system without the headaches of learning everything from scratch. An operating system provides the basic marching orders for a computer's operations and also includes the look and functions of its virtual desktop.

Linux is the new player in the battle for the hearts and desktops of home computer users after becoming a phenomenon in academic, corporate and Web circles, first as an alternative to the Unix operating system and more recently as a challenger to Microsoft's business version of Windows. The fast-growing operating system was developed by Linus Torvalds in 1991 and released free as open source software, meaning anyone could use, change or improve it.

In its early years, only hard-core techies could deal with Linux's very technical set of commands and structure. Now, companies such as Red Hat and Corel are selling versions that make it easier to install and use. Eazel Inc., a company that includes four members of the team that developed the Apple Macintosh, a computer that defined ease of use, is developing software to give the operating system a friendlier-looking desktop. And other companies are working on products and gadgets that will be powered by Linux.

The path to the desktop, though, has some obstacles, particularly the lack of mainstream software. Programs such as Quicken, America Online and, not surprisingly, Microsoft's Office suite, don't work on Linux.

Linux penguin

Other Linux vendors
It often surprises Windows and Mac users that Linux is available from many companies. An interesting analogy comes from Bob Young, former chief executive of Red Hat software, who suggests that people think of the operating system like ketchup. It's all tomatoes, sugar, salt and water, but each tastes a little different.

Linux? Not for AOL users
Corel says people who use computers for basic functions such as surfing the Web, word processing and spreadsheets are candidates to try its Linux operating system. But it's not for America Online subscribers.

There is an effort to produce high-quality, free software that runs on Linux. But with some notable exceptions, such as the graphics program Gimp, most of these programs are playing catch-up with their commercial counterparts.

"Very few people pick an operating system and then pick applications that work with it," said Dan Kusnetzky, an operating system analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "We look for applications we want, then we are willing to consider what operating system" to buy.

Still, Kusnetzky and others see promise for Linux on the desktop.

A look at Corel

If imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery, the software developers at Corel are big fans of Windows. But Corel promises a more reliable system, one that's easier to set up and use and less expensive than Microsoft's, and it seems to be pinning the company's future on it.

Corel made an excellent effort to iron out some of the nagging problems that would stop the average user from trying this open source operating system, including adopting the K Desktop Environment (www.kde.org) to give it the Windows look and feel. Corel has extended KDE in some areas, which provides significant value to Windows refugees.

One of the biggest problems in putting Linux on a machine has been the installation. Having to understand mount points, partitions, IDE 1024 cylinder limits and similar techie jargon was only the start of what was standing between users and productivity.

Corel's installation program asks a few simple questions, such as whether you want Linux to be the only operating system on your machine or you want it to co-exist with Windows. It rapidly installs off the CD-ROM, or a version can be downloaded from the Web for those who want to make their own CD-ROMs. The simplicity shouldn't scare off more tech-savvy users, who can select most of the advanced options found in more traditional Linux installation routines.

Corel offers a file manager that's much like the one familiar to Windows 98 or NT users. It handles the computer's drives, as well as servers and other resources for those connected to a network. If you need to access Windows-based printers and servers, you'll particularly enjoy this network integration.

Its update tool makes handling patches and software updates a breeze, even from different distributors. Software updates can occur frequently, and the update tool excels at managing this process. Since many of the updates fix important security issues, new users will enjoy this feature.

Corel Linux won't automatically install unnecessary server-type programs that could leave your system vulnerable to hijacking by a remote, malicious user. These programs are available for the experienced user and come with the software.

One thing that impressed Kusnetzky, the IDC analyst: A demonstration Corel conducted was "not on the biggest, baddest machine. It was more like a typical machine a typical person might own."

That means it doesn't have to be the fastest processor or have a lot of random access memory. Linux easily can run on a machine with a 486 processor at 50 megahertz and 32 megabytes of random access memory. It takes about 500 megabytes of hard drive space. (Corel suggests Pentium-class processors and 24 megabytes of RAM, though 64 is preferred.)

Microsoft says Windows 98 can run on a computer with similar specs: a 486 processor, 24 megabytes of RAM and up to 400 megabytes of hard disk space. But Linux will run a lot better on its minimum specifications than Windows will on Microsoft's.

Windows 98 Second Edition costs about $180 for a new installation or about $100 to upgrade from a previous Windows version. Corel offers Linux at $59 and $89; the higher price includes its WordPerfect word processor that has long been a worthy alternative to Microsoft Word. A basic version of Linux, without any added commercial software or manuals, is $4.95.

Corel has released its WordPerfect 2000 office suite for Linux, complete with WordPerfect, plus database and spreadsheet programs. The beta version was thoroughly impressive, and it converted Microsoft Word documents without incident. The office suite and operating system combination can be bought for $109 or $149. Compare that with Microsoft's Office 2000, which can run $500 or more, depending on the version, without Windows.

Later this year, Corel will release Linux versions of its popular Draw and and Photo-Paint programs.

Linux still has its rough edges for the casual user. But power users and the curious could benefit from exploration. Its cost and rock-solid stability are seductive. But remember that if you rely on a specific Windows or Mac software package, you may be out of luck in getting a Linux version at this point.

Corel's challenge

Corel is painfully aware of Microsoft's clout: Windows controls about 87 percent of the desktop market, Apple's Macintosh has 5 percent and Linux trails with less than 4 percent, according to International Data.

In addition, Corel's WordPerfect runs a poor second to Microsoft's Word in the word-processing market, and Microsoft Office has an even bigger share of the office suite market than Windows does in desktop operating systems.

Linux has made its mark in the business world powering networks, where an easy-to-navigate desktop and availability of popular software don't carry much weight. Linux has 25 percent of the server market, compared with 38 percent for Windows.

Even IBM has embraced Linux, recently starting a program to make its hardware and software work seamlessly with Linux, a major boost for the operating system from a company that defined corporate computing.

Microsoft isn't taking the challenge lightly. It released Windows 2000 in February for businesses, though delays in releasing it gave Linux time to make more inroads. And Microsoft has a new version of its consumer version of Windows scheduled for release this year.

Linux gave Corel a boost last year when the company first offered the operating system. Its stock was as low as $2 in March 1999 before increasing to $44.50 in September. The stock then started faltering, and Corel reported a loss of $12.4-million, or 19 cents a share, in the first quarter ended Feb. 29, compared with a loss of $14.6-million, or 24 cents a share, a year earlier.

The company said the next two quarters don't look better, and its stock has plummeted, trading near $10.

"I think investors are encouraged by the potential for Linux, but at the same time they can't totally ignore what's going on on an ongoing basis," said Jean Orr, an analyst with Bluestone Capital Partners LP in New York. "And clearly the loss was larger than most of us were looking for."

Beyond the desktop

Linux's future goes beyond the desktop computer and network servers.

Several major technology companies have said they will use the software in devices ranging from touch-sensitive screens for Web surfing to microwave ovens. This movement has been boosted by new microprocessors optimized for Linux by Transmeta Corp., a secretive chipmaker that detailed its plans in January.

The venture is headed by a cadre of technology superstars that includes Linux creator Torvalds.

"These chips are powerful and it's very clear they can be put in a lot of Web devices," said Tim Bajarin, president of the Creative Strategies Research International consulting company.

These machines don't require everyday computer applications and, in fact, often lack hard drives to store them. Linux's simplicity and low cost help gadgetmakers price the Net devices against the cheapest PCs, as little as $400.

"Linux would never have been thought of as an operating system for (Net access gadgets) a year or two ago. And now we're bumping into that all over the place," said Amy Wohl, who owns a software consultancy in Narbeth, Pa.

Linux's opportunity in the Web access market, though, will be challenged by a crowded field, in the appliance market, Bajarin said.

The latest Linux devices for Web navigation will emerge this year, including:

  • Qubit Technology, a start-up in Lakewood, Colo., will offer a wireless tablet, which can be carried up to 500 feet away from a base station that plugs into the phone jack or a TV cable modem. It may cost as little as $400.
  • S3 is making a similar Web pad that uses a Transmeta chip. The pads, to sell for less than $1,000, should be on the market by the end of the year.
  • Linea Inc., a softwaremaker in Lindon, Utah, is working with makers of digital set-top boxes to integrate Linux into devices for hotel rooms and apartments in Latin America that let people access the Web and other digital services.
  • Red Hat Inc., the largest maker of Linux operating software, bought a company that makes specialized software for "embedded" devices that run everything from assembly lines to microwaves. Red Hat is adapting Cygnus software to Linux.
-- Information from Times wires, including Bloomberg News, was used in this report. Dave Gussow is the Times technology editor. Jules Allen is a Times correspondent.

Linux roadshow

The Corel Linux Roadshow 2000 will stop in Tampa on Wednesday to demonstrate its version of the Linux operating system and WordPerfect Office Suite 2000 for Linux. Two sessions are scheduled, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. and from 6 to 9 p.m., at the Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore, 2225 N Lois Ave. The event is free, but registration is required. Check www.corel.com/roadshow for information

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