Linux: today's curiosity or tomorrow's workhorse?

First Published: Valley People
Date Published: 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Savetz

The Linux operating system is starting to leave the hobbyist's domain and is entering the mainstream.

Is this Unix-workalike operating system destined for success?

Could it put a chink in Microsoft's armor of Windows world domination?

Or will it remain a playground for a handful of geeks?

KMS: Have you used Linux yet, Neil?

I've got the latest version running on my PC, and I've got to admit I'm impressed. I've been playing with Linux on and off since its early days, and it seems to me that it's about ready for the mainstream. It's stable, it's fast, and the X windowing system (which works with Linux) is an order of magnitude sexier than Windows.

Neil Randall: First of all, Kevin, old friend, I've used X many times, and I don't think it's "sexier" than Windows at all. I also don't think it's "sexier" than the Mac (which, admittedly, I haven't used as often). It's okay, but that's about it. The whole GUI/windowing thing is so long in the tooth right now that I keep wishing someone would come up with something different. Surely this isn't the be-all and end-all in interface design. But hey, we can fight about that another time (at which time you'll undoubtedly take the wrong track again).

Second, Linux might very well be ready for the mainstream, for all the reasons you suggest. But there's no way in hell Corporate America is going to wholeheartedly endorse a free operating system. For one thing, the perception of many people, and higher-up corporate types are typically like this: the more expensive something is, the better it must be.

Questions abound, such as how much of your business you're willing to risk on an operating system where help questions are handled by random online geeks (very proficient geeks, but there's no central location). A second point is that a major corporate customer can virtually force a software company to provide better service by spending lots of money on their products. How do you force the Linux community to do anything?

And getting away from the corporate community, the really neat multimedia and entertainment stuff is being done for Windows first, Mac second, and Linux third. How many Linux machines can you sell to the home user?

Nice idea, Kevin, but no go.

KMS: I agree with your observation that those suits in the corporate offices will be loathe to embrace a free operating system. I do think some will, eventually, but they don't have to be the first ones.

The reason is that there are many, many more small businesses with limited resources than there are corporate giants with money to burn. Don't you think smaller, cash-strapped business would be more willing to adopt a plucky, free operating system rather than pay a CEO's ransom for more Windows NT licenses?

About support: many companies do indeed provide technical support for Linux systems. You can buy, for instance, Linux support from RedHat, which offers annual contracts for technical support, software updates and bug fixes. Or, as you point out, you can go the Random Geek way and get decent free support from the Linux community itself.

How many Linux machines can you sell to the home user? Dunno, let's ask Dell, which has had enough interest that it now sells systems to home users who want Linux pre-installed.

Neil, I'm not sure if you'd know a sexy interface if it smacked you upside the head, so trust me: with a good window manager like AfterStep, X's sexiness dances circles around Windows.

NFR: So did OS/2's in some ways, but nobody went for it. And the Amiga had sexier hardware than the Mac. And so on. Still, the point about getting to Linux through the home market and the small business market is a good one (I shudder to admit). And the Dell scenario is promising. If - and this is a big if - if Linux can become popular enough to start a kind of groundswell of converts, then it has a chance to take over from Windows and the Mac, at the consumer level and the small business level. But UNIX itself has such a horrible image among the general computing public, as do geeks, that a free, geek-driven version of UNIX will be a hard sell to those groups.

You sent me to a good article on the possibility of Linux succeeding, and there's a possibility there. But I think that if Linux attains success on the desktop, it will do so because customers will buy it from a company such as RedHat or Caldera, and who knows if that will decrease the cost significantly over the lower end Windows (currently 98).

No question it outdoes NT's pricing, and that might be the cue for businesses in the small-to-medium size to pick up on it. I still predict it won't happen. But I'll give it a much higher chance than a Java-based OS, or a newcomer like BeOS (which I like a lot).

But let's not forget that I also predicted that there was no way a B-movie actor would ever reach the White House.

KMS: You don't give UNIX or geeks enough credit. People may have a low opinion of both, but they have a lower opinion of Bill Gates. And an even lower opinion of spending money when free stuff will do.

It's all too true that the good guy doesn't always win. As the Amiga can tell you, David doesn't always beat Goliath. But I think enough people are ready for a viable alternative to the world of Microsoft-dominated operating systems that Linux has a good chance of success.

Articles by Kevin Savetz