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May 24, 1998

Forget Windows; programmer
creates own operating system

By Timothy C. Barmann

Bill Gates claims that his company, Microsoft Corp., does not have a monopoly in the operating system market.

That position seems difficult to defend given that the company's Windows operating system runs on nearly 90 percent of all PCs.

However, it is true that there are other operating systems. In fact, there's one operating system that some consider to be superior to Windows in some respects. It's called Linux.

Like Windows, Linux provides a computer with the basic instructions necessary to perform the most rudimentary tasks, such as reading a file from a disk, drawing a picture on the screen or figuring out what key was just typed.

Its funny name comes from its ingenious creator, Linus Torvalds, a 28-year-old Finnish programmer, who decided in 1991 that he didn't care for Microsoft's MS-DOS, the predominant operating system at the time. And he couldn't afford the $6,000 to $9,000 price tag to buy Unix, the software used on the computer systems of his school, the University of Helsinki, in Finland.

So at age 21, while still a computer-science student, he chose to write an operating system himself.

"I wasn't aware of how big a project it was," Torvalds said in an E-mail interview. "So in my ignorance and the ultimate arrogance of youth I just thought, 'Hey, I can do better than anything I've seen so far.' As it happened I was right . .."

Torvalds modeled Linux after Unix, which was used to run a number of expensive workstations and Internet sites. Linus's Unix became known as "Linux."

But Torvalds did something that was virtually unheard of in the corporate world: he shared his "source code" -- the programming commands behind his software -- with anyone that cared to look at it. That is akin to Coke giving away the secret ingredients to its popular soft drink.

He invited others to join in on his project and to add their own improvements. Torvalds's creation took off. Programmers from around the world began collaborating via the Internet, fixing bugs, and making contributions to the software.

In 1994, the first stable version was released. But the collaboration continues. About 50 developers continue their work on the central code, and a few hundred people are occasional helpers, Torvalds said. Few commercial software companies could afford to assemble such a tremendous pool of resources.

A number of companies sell their own low-cost versions of Linux, including Red Hat of Research Triangle Park, N.C., and Caldera of Inc, of Orem, Utah. But you can download the program and its source code for free on the Internet. There are between 3 million and 8 million Linux users, according to the Linux Journal of Seattle.

(Torvalds has since moved to the U.S. and now works for Transmeta, a Santa Clara, Calif., start-up.)

Linux's appeal got a big boost when a Venice, Calif., production studio chose it to run some of the computers used to create the special effects in the blockbuster film Titantic .

Digital Domain used 105 computers running Linux to create renderings of the ocean, people, birds, and smoke. In three months, the systems processed over 300,000 frames while running 24 hours a day.

"We were extremely pleased with the results," wrote Daryll Strauss, who worked on the project, in an article that appeared in the Linux Journal.

Linux has also been used by NASA to help piece together pictures of the Earth taken from outer space. It has also been used by some astronauts flying on the space shuttle.

And Robert DeFelice uses Linux to teach three courses in the Unix operating system at the Community College of Rhode Island. He speaks highly of the software.

"I have to say my experiences have been absolutely wonderful," he said. I got the Linux server installed in 30 minutes out of the box." He said it was as simple as any Windows installation he has done.

But before you ditch Windows 95 and run out and buy your copy, there are a few caveats.

Not everyone has had DeFelice's easy installation experience. The operating systems is far from "plug and play" standard found in Macintosh and Windows 95 PCs.

"I bought Linux because someone told me it was a good OS," wrote J.J. Horner of Talbott, Tenn. in an Internet discussion group about Linux, where people often turn for help. "As of yet, I have found nothing in it to prove that or make me want to abandon win95. As far as I am concerned, Linus Torvalds should have never started this little project."

However, a week later, Talbott apparently had some success after all. He wrote: "Well, after reinstalling Redhat 5.0 a few times, I finally figured out the problem. I think my menuconfig is botched and I think (THINK) the directions in the Redhat manual messed me up."

The jargon in that message alludes to another downside to Linux -- you have to become familiar with words like "kernel" and "device drivers." It is not for the faint of heart.

In fact, you'll have to learn a whole new set of arcane commands that have to be typed in -- similar to the way DOS commands are entered at the prompt.

But perhaps the biggest shortcoming right now is that there aren't nearly the number of applications available for computers running Linux as there are for Windows-based computers. You can't go into a software store and buy a word processor for Linux. You may have trouble even finding Linux itself in such a store.

And since Linux is a work in progress, updates and bug fixes are continually being posted, which means users need to spend time updating their own software.

Many of these problems are being addressed. For one, the companies that sell Linux on CD-ROMs are making it easier to install.

And there are some Windows-like interfaces available that will run on Linux to make it easier to use. One effort under way is a program called FVWM95, which makes Linux look very similar to Windows 95.

As for the lack of software for Linux, two big companies have announced they will make a suite of products to run on that operating system. Two weeks ago, Canadian software company Corel said it would develop versions of all its applications for Linux, including its Wordperfect word-processing software.

Earlier this year, Microsoft rival Netscape Communications said it will make developing applications for Linux a high priority. Netscape itself has emulated the Linux model of open collaboration by making its source code available for free as well.

Can Linux really challenge Microsoft's dominance in the operating system market?

Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, said he thinks Linux may be a threat to Windows NT at some point. Speaking in Boston last month before the Massachusetts Software Council, Andreessen said he expects Linux to emerge as a "very serious" operating system.

Torvalds, the Linux creator, said he believes that Microsoft will eventually lose its dominance in the operating system market, much as IBM lost its dominance in the computer industry. It may take 2 years or 20 years, he predicted.

"I certainly think that Linux has a real place in the marketplace -- and competing with Microsoft on a commercial level is so hard that I don't really see the traditional commercial approach working," he said.

"Whether Linux will have anything to do with the downfall of Microsoft, I have no idea, and I really don't care. My personal goal has always been to make the best system I can, and I think that on that level Microsoft has long since lost the fight."

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.