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Personal Computing: Linux May Give Windows Some Competition

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Looking around a typical office, all you see is Windows. More than nine of ten personal computers run one or another of Microsoft’s operating systems. It didn’t use to be this way.
A decade ago, there was vigorous competition in the desktop operating system market. IBM hadn’t yet conceded to Microsoft and stopped marketing OS/2 to end users. The Macintosh operating system, though only able to run on Macintosh computers, showed potential to break out of its design and education niches.
Today it’s a Windows world. But for how long? The courts still haven’t weighed in fully on the US Justice Department’s landmark antitrust case against Microsoft. But even if Microsoft is able to continue unfettered, the market may yet provide some competition.

What about Linux?

The one operating system that in the minds of many shows the greatest promise of loosening Microsoft’s stranglehold seems on the surface to be the least able competitor. Created in 1991 by a college student in Finland named Linus Torvalds, Linux (pronounced LIH-nux by most people) is a Unix-like product that doesn’t cost a dime.
As “freeware,” it’s shared for free over the Internet, with programmers from around the world donating their time to improve the product and find and fix bugs. Enhanced versions that include technical support are sold by companies such as Red Hat Software (http://www.redhat.com) and Caldera (http://www.calderasystems.com), but even here the cost is considerably less than any version of Windows.
The biggest market for Linux currently is Internet service providers and other organizations that use powerful computers to “serve” data and programs over networks. Linux is doing well here. Its share of the server market is growing faster than Windows NT, NetWare, and Solaris and other versions of Unix, according to a recent study by International Data Corporation.
Growing by 212% in 1998, Linux now controls nearly 20% of the commercial server market. If you factor in the free versions of Linux that are routinely downloaded off the Internet, these market share figures would be even higher.
Some of this growth stems from anti-Microsoft sentiment, but much is due to the stability and performance of Linux itself. Recognizing Linux’s potential, industry heavyweights IBM, Oracle, Computer Associates, Informix, and Sybase have recently begun supporting or have announced plans to support Linux with database offerings.
Robert Shingledecker, information systems manager for the city of Garden Grove, California, is one Linux convert. For the past four years, he has used Linux in all of the city’s departments, from finance to police. “Windows NT isn’t scalable enough for large organizations like ours, and it crashes too much. NetWare is too closed and proprietary.”
“Compared to Windows, Linux is much more reliable,” echoes David Hamm, a systems analyst for Imaging Technologies, a printing services company headquartered in Atlanta with 20 branches throughout the Southeast. The company uses Linux for file serving, print serving, task automation, image processing, and other mission-critical applications.

Linux & the Individual PC Market

As a desktop operating system powering individual PCs, Linux is in for a tougher battle. Despite the introduction of a number of graphical user interfaces for it, Linux is still more difficult to use than Windows or the Mac OS. There are also many fewer Linux application programs to choose from.
The dearth of major applications is slowly changing, with the Canadian software publisher Corel leading the way. Recently Corel released a Linux version of WordPerfect. You can download a free version of it from Corel’s Web site (http://linux.corel.com), or you can purchase (for less than $70) an enhanced version that includes a manual, templates, clip art, fonts, and technical support.
Corel plans to release Linux versions of other programs in its Corel WordPerfect Suite, including the spreadsheet Quattro Pro, during the second half of 1999, according to a Corel spokesperson. Currently, Applixware (http://www.applix.com) is the most popular commercial office suite for Linux.
In order to increase its use in the desktop market, Linux must fight entrenched ideas. People are familiar, and comfortable, with Microsoft products. Despite the fact that they favor Linux personally, Shingledecker and Hamm’s organizations are both using Windows on the desktop. “For some reason, our users are enamored with Microsoft products,” says Hamm. “It’s more a perceptual thing.”

Want to Learn More?

If you’d like to download Linux or read more about it, check out the Linux Documentation Project (http://metalab.unc.edu/LDP). At Linux Business Applications (http://www.m-tech.ab.ca/linux-biz) and the Linux Mall (http://www.linuxmall.com), you can find out more about Linux business software.
You can also read about how others are using Linux and participate in these discussions in a host of Usenet newsgroups devoted to Linux, such as alt.os.linux, and the newsgroups in the comp.os.linux and linux families.Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.


This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor March, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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