The little operating system that could

Microsoft, beware: Linux fans are hell-bent on world domination.

Topics: Microsoft, Linux,

Larry Augustin doesn’t look like a holy warrior. Clean-cut and slightly harried, the president and co-founder of VA Research wears the classic demeanor of the overworked businessman who’s more concerned with shipping product on time than with leading a crusade.

And he should be concerned: VA Research manufactures personal computers pre-loaded with Linux — the free software operating system created by a loosely linked international band of volunteer hacker software developers. Customers are clamoring. The 15-employee company, says Augustin, is growing at a rate of more than 10 percent a month — “We’re completely overwhelmed,” he sighs.

But he’s not complaining. The enthusiasm for the so-called Linux PC is one more sign that Linux is for real — that it’s not just an operating system for hacker hobbyists, |ber-geeks and inveterate Microsoft-haters. And for Linux advocates like Augustin, that kind of proof must be immensely satisfying. Because despite his businesslike mien, he is a crusader. At VA Research, the bottom line isn’t the only thing that counts; the company also serves the greater glory of Linux — its inexorable march to “world domination,” as Linux devotees put it.

Linux isn’t just an operating system: It’s a way of life. And increasingly, its fans are pushing it as a way of life for everyone — not just for the power computer users who have traditionally been the biggest Linux boosters, but also for the average consumer. More and more, Linux acolytes are positioning the operating system as a credible alternative to Microsoft Windows for the teeming computer masses — those hundreds of millions of users who could not care less about access to “command-line interfaces” or the joy of writing your own shell script.

Can Linux go mainstream? It certainly won’t be easy. As the preface to the standard Linux installation guide reads: “[Linux is] one of the most complex and utterly intimidating systems ever written.” Sure, it’s powerful, it’s fast and, best of all, free — but that doesn’t mean it’s a snap to use.

To take any chunk out of Microsoft’s market share, Linux must solve “the desktop problem”: Newbie computer users must be able to find their way around and use their favorite applications without fuss, yet at the same time Linux must preserve the flexibility and openness that is its hallmark.

Not a simple task. A year ago, few people would even have considered it worth tackling. And even now, most industry observers cavalierly dismiss the likelihood that Linux will ever escape the geek ghetto. But within the “Linux advocacy” community, ambitions run unchecked. Right now, Linux developers are tackling the desktop problem with the same ferocity that has propelled the development of each previous layer of Linux software.

Huge obstacles lie ahead, not the least of which is Microsoft itself. But one should never underestimate the cooperative power of passionate programmers working in the tradition of free software. First they gave us the Internet (which, like Linux, was once deemed too complex and geeky for the general public), and now they want to give us Linux — if not today, then tomorrow.

“We’re not interested in Linux only running on the Web server machine in the back room,” says Larry Augustin. “Everyone in the Linux world wants to win the desktop.”

“Everyone understands that desktop efforts are essential to world domination,” says Todd Lewis, maintainer of the frequently asked question file for GNOME, one of the major contenders for the leading role of the Linux desktop interface. “If you want to beat Germany, then bomb Berlin, and if you want to beat Microsoft, attack the desktop.”

Will the assault succeed?

“Yes,” says Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat, the market leader in commercially sold Linux distributions. “Categorically. There is not a doubt in our minds.”

- – - – - – - – - -

Linux is a clone of Unix, an operating system originally developed at AT&T that has long been a fixture in academic computing departments and is still the lingua franca of the Internet, despite every attempt by Microsoft to dislodge it. Unix is notoriously difficult to master; there’s even an old joke, recounted by one observer skeptical of Linux’s desktop chances, that runs as follows: “Unix is user-friendly; it’s just a little particular about which users it is friendly to.” Historically, the same has always been true for Linux: As the original creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, once described it, “This is a program for hackers by a hacker.”

Torvalds first created Linux in 1991 while a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. He now lives in California and still oversees all work on the Linux “kernel” — the code engine at the heart of every Linux-based system. (Technically, the word “Linux” refers to only the kernel, but it has come to describe any Linux-based “distribution” — the kernel plus the hundreds of utilities, programming tools, window managers and other “widgets” that make up a full operating-system package.)

Torvalds copyrighted Linux under a license first created by the Free Software Foundation known as GPL. Under the GPL, anyone can sell a version of Linux, but the source code to any changes or improvements that anyone makes to Linux must be made available to the public. The development model that has grown up around “GPL-ed” software has proved amazingly successful. Engineers and computer scientists, in particular, appreciate Linux for its legendary stability and the efficiency with which it takes advantage of computer hardware.

Such technical strengths, combined with Linux’s low cost, have turned the operating-system marketplace upside down. Linux is the only operating system in the world not made by Microsoft that is expanding its market share from year to year. Hard numbers are scarce, but conservative estimates place total installations of Linux at around 5 million — and one International Data Corporation analyst guesses that anywhere between 2 million and 6 million copies of Linux were installed in 1997 alone (by comparison, 1997 saw 3.8 million new installations of the Macintosh OS).

Until recently, the battle lines for Linux were drawn on corporate terrain. The computer trade press has been packed with articles about how Linux has infiltrated corporate networks, snuck in by mid-level engineers rebelling against management-dictated Windows NT or proprietary Unix operating systems. Linux already dominates in the Internet service provider arena, where the free-software double whammy of the Linux operating system running the Apache Web server is by far the most popular configuration.

Over the first half of 1998, however, the tone of the Linux debate has changed, fueled largely by a series of corporate announcements that have emboldened the free software (or “open source,” as it now prefers to call itself) community. First came Netscape’s January decision to join the open source movement and release the source code to the Netscape Navigator Web browser — accompanied by high-profile statements by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen that Netscape plus Linux could take on Microsoft. Then, in May, the Corel Corporation, which already offered a version of WordPerfect for Linux, promised to make a version of its entire office suite for Linux.

“We view Linux as an operating system that is trending upwards,” says Greg O’Brien, Corel’s director of strategic product sales. “There is a significant amount of interest — there is a coolness to it.”

Industry cynics have been quick to dismiss the moves by Netscape and Corel as desperate maneuvers forced by Microsoft’s overwhelming market power. But among Linux advocates, the newfound corporate respect for Linux has encouraged developers to look to wider marketplaces. Even Torvalds himself is buying into the dream — over the past year, he has conducted several “World Domination 101″ Linux seminars and lectures.

“If you look at how far Linux has come in the last few years, we’re certainly getting there,” says Torvalds. “There are a lot of people out there using Linux today that wouldn’t have dreamt of using it just a year ago, and I expect that to continue.”

“It’s funny, because three years ago when we started this effort, there was no niche that people felt Linux would fit into,” says Ransom Love, general manager of the OpenLinux division at Caldera, the second leading commercial distributor of Linux in the United States. “The mere fact that [people are asking whether Linux can succeed among consumers] means that Linux has had tremendous success in areas people never thought it would.”

As one would expect from any group that prides itself on cantankerous independence, Linux advocates are by no means united on efforts to make Linux more user-friendly. To some Linux hackers, graphical user interfaces are for wimps only, and any concession to the needs of Windows users is a betrayal of hacker mores.

Most Linux activists dismiss such carping as a minority opinion. They’d rather describe the Linux march to glory as a three-stage journey. First came the kernel — the development of a rock-solid operating-system core that outperformed all competitors on pure technical grounds. Then came the arduous task of adapting development tools to Linux, so programmers could create more advanced applications. And finally, now, the time has come for the applications themselves — the desktop managers, word processors, spreadsheets, telecom utilities and so on.

“In certain areas, especially hard-core ‘neat’ computer science stuff, like scientific applications and massively parallel machines, we beat the pants off of [Microsoft and Intel],” says Todd Lewis of the GNOME project. “We definitely have them beat in the server market, at least in server power. In usability, we are behind, but we are catching up. That is what GNOME and KDE are designed to do.”

GNOME is still essentially vaporware, at least a year or two away from deployment. But KDE, a Linux desktop that’s been in development longer, is very much available today — offering a Windows-style interface that is immediately familiar to refugees from Microsoft-land.

“I have taken Macintosh and Windows users and put them in front of a Linux machine running KDE and they feel very comfortable,” says Larry Augustin.

However, not everyone in the Linux community is comfortable with KDE. In fact, a major “religious war” is currently raging on the Linux mailing lists and newsgroups over the relative merits of KDE and GNOME.

That in itself is nothing amazing. The free software movement is constantly riven by factional disputes over both ideological and technological issues. Mostly, they’re meaningless to outsiders. But the KDE-GNOME conflict helps illustrate both the essential strength of the Linux community and its potential Achilles’ heel: the teeming variety of choices and options. Except for Torvald’s light hand on the tiller, no one’s in charge — and so anyone can get into the game.

The conflict arose because KDE is built around a piece of software that is not protected by the GPL license — it’s not fully “free” in the eyes of Linux purists. So even though KDE is today the most fully developed user-friendly Linux desktop, the distributor of the most popular Linux package, Red Hat, shuns it. Red Hat is in a paradoxical position: It offers the most commercially successful Linux distribution (400,000 CD-ROM sales in 1997), but it also adheres to strict, purist “free software” principles. So Red Hat has rejected KDE and is instead devoting programming resources and money to GNOME.

“We are sad about the fact that the GNOME project was founded,” says Bernd Johannes Wuebben, a KDE developer. “We feel that what the
free software community needs is unity and focus, not competing standards and the repeated hostility that members of the GNOME project and the more radical elements of the GNU [free software] movement have brought forth against KDE … We at KDE do believe in free software but we believe that radical views … are utopian and in the end hurt the free software community severely. In our view there is clearly a place for both: commercial as well as free software development.”

Larry Augustin believes that GNOME is ultimately the better desktop on pure technological grounds. But he regrets the fact that Red Hat, the market leader, will not ship the most advanced desktop interface for Linux, thus inhibiting Linux’s wider market penetration.

Red Hat’s Bob Young argues that Red Hat is the market leader because the “technical community trusts us,” and that trust depends on Red Hat choosing the appropriate technology. He also suggested that the next release of Red Hat might include an optional version of KDE, packaged separately from the core Red Hat distribution.

Linux outsiders may watch this whole spectacle with some perplexity. Microsoft’s great advantage is that it offers software developers a single standard to write their code to, and provides users with a guarantee of software compatibility. Linux, on the other hand, has at least five major distributions — in addition to Red Hat and Caldera, there is also S.u.S.E. (from Germany), Slackware and Debian (a completely noncommercial version). Each distribution differs from all the others, has different setup procedures and requires a different approach when installing new software.

Corporate America, not to mention the individual consumer, shies away from such variety, with its potential for confusion. Yet at the same time, the diversity is a major source of Linux’s strength.

“It’s the beauty of anarchy. It’s the beauty of freedom,” says Red Hat’s Bob Young. “The distributions that do not do a good job keeping up … will not survive in the long run.”

“It’s an advantage because you have more choices and competition,” says Augustin. “The distribution vendors are fighting to make distributions better, and that competition helps a lot, it really drives them. There is very little proprietary work in a distribution. It’s very easy for someone to come out with a free version of Red Hat, so the distribution vendors have to be constantly making themselves better. If they don’t, people will migrate to whoever is best technically.”

In the long run, it would be pointless to try to separate ideological passion from the realpolitik of Linux expansionism: Without the passion, there would be no Linux. Augustin himself offers a perfect example of how advocacy and commercialism intersect. Even as he strives to profit from sales of Linux PCs, he does everything he can to support the ideals of the free software movement. In a back room at VA Research, Web servers provide homes for the Silicon Valley Linux Users Community, alternate “mirrors” for both KDE and Red Hat, as well as storage space for the purest of the pure — the Debian distribution of Linux. And when Eric Raymond, one of the most vocal free-software activists in the world, had his computer monitor blow up on him, VA Research gave him a new one.

True Linux advocates are true believers; they have to be. Mere technical superiority will not win the battle for the desktop — not when the opponent is Microsoft.

- – - – - – - – - -

Microsoft is well aware of Linux’s growing popularity, though it is loath to comment publicly. Repeated press inquiries resulted in nothing more than a bland statement from a spokesman for Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s primary public relations company.

“It’s not our policy to comment on specific competing operating systems. I will tell you that Microsoft is committed to interoperability with a number of other operating systems,” says Greg Mills of Waggener Edstrom. “We’re obviously aware of Linux and customers have told us it is important to provide interoperability — we do recognize that.”

Despite the taciturn public stance, Microsoft is clearly paying attention. Last week, a beta tester for Microsoft products received e-mail seeking new beta testers experienced in either the Red Hat or Debian Linux distributions. And Bob Young asserts that when Microsoft sales representatives come to local Internet service providers in an attempt to push Windows NT, their sales pitch is specifically targeted against Linux.

“They’re watching us like hawks,” says Young.

But that shouldn’t come as a great surprise. After all, a significant portion of Linux’s popularity is derived from the simple fact of Microsoft’s dominance: Any alternative, no matter how marginal, is cherished by those who resent Bill Gates’ monopoly.

In corporate terms, the anti-Microsoft strategy is explicit. Caldera, for example, is funded by Ray Noorda, the former CEO of Novell. While at Novell, Noorda bought WordPerfect in a much publicized attempt to go head-to-head against Microsoft. He failed, and eventually resigned from Novell, but has yet to concede defeat. Caldera’s marketing of Linux is just one part of a multiprong anti-Microsoft strategy — Caldera has also taken Microsoft to court, alleging that Gates’ company illegally squashes competing operating systems.

“Ray has had very personal experience with Microsoft,” says Caldera’s Ransom Love. “He was aware of things that they were doing that he felt were inappropriate.”

Likewise, Netscape’s and Corel’s support of Linux is carefully calculated with an eye to Microsoft. But corporate antagonism is only half the story; hostility toward Microsoft often motivates individual developers. This is particularly true outside of the United States, where the bulk of Linux development is conducted, and where many software developers resent their sense of dependence on what they see as a cutthroat American corporation.

“Most people I know in Europe do not value the form of capitalism and the poor social system that is present in the U.S. very much,” says KDE’s
Wuebben. “The U.S. is not seen as an example to emulate. The fact that Microsoft is having a near monopoly in the software industry is not seen as a good thing and that it is a U.S. company doesn’t help either. People are actively looking for alternatives. Something that is more international and collaborative in character than monopolistic and American is very much appreciated.”

That appreciation is far from confined to Europe. Wednesday night, some 60 members of the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group trooped down to the local Fry’s computer store to protest the midnight release of Windows 98. The Linux protesters distributed 500 free Linux CDs and, according to their own report, mightily irritated the Fry’s manager, who summoned the police in an effort to be rid of them.

Direct action in the streets! You won’t find that kind of esprit de corps among Windows 95 users. When that passion is combined with the technical excellence that is at the heart of Linux, suddenly the goals of Linux’s advocates don’t seem that far-fetched.

One shortage, though, still plagues Linux’s advance: As Torvalds himself repeatedly points out, a great operating system requires great applications. And at present, there is no Quicken for Linux, no Eudora for Linux — and, of course, no versions of Microsoft’s dominant Office Suite for Linux.

“Most computer users are interested in applications, not operating systems,” says International Data Corporation analyst Dan Kusnetzky. “They’ll seek out the applications they need and then buy whatever operating system supports those applications. Almost all of the interesting personal productivity applications run on Windows. … Until the applications, database software, development tool software, etc., is available on Linux, Linux is not really a strong competitor.”

Nonetheless, change is afoot. Red Hat’s Bob Young predicts that within “the next 12 months,” two of the six biggest computer manufacturers “will be offering a Linux-based model.”

Larry Augustin is shipping Linux-based PCs every day. And he needs help: At last report, VA Research was looking to hire at least three more employees.

Today VA Research remains minuscule compared to the behemoths of the computer industry. But if Linux is proof of anything, it is that out of tiny seeds mighty oaks can grow.

Augustin has seen it happen before. Five years ago, he was a graduate student at Stanford, busy hacking together homemade Linux boxes while his friends David Filo and Jerry Yang were coding Yahoo. At one point, all three computer science students were considering writing a joint business plan — but eventually went their separate ways.

“Oh yes,” says Augustin, when I remind him of his Yahoo connection. “I’d forgotten that not being the third person at Yahoo was my claim to fame.”

“I don’t know if we’ll get rich, but we expect to make a difference,” says Augustin. “I think that’s all you can hope for in any business. I think that it’s important to focus on issues like doing what is right for Linux and customers, and not worry too much about the bottom line … If we can do that, I think we can have the same kind of success as Yahoo.”

Making a difference, making an operating system succeed, making a dent in the battle for the desktop: The goals require a mixture of the political and the pragmatic, of rock-solid code and evangelistic fervor — precisely the kind of mixture that companies like VA Research and Red Hat exhibit.

Linux still has quite a long way to go — and there’s no assurance that it will ever achieve the “world domination” its evangelists predict. But the little operating system that could is well worth watching. There’s never been an experiment in distributed software development as massive and as vigorous as Linux. If it continues to grow and evolve at its current breakneck pace, there is no telling where it will end up.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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