PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Linux doesn’t go away
April 1998

This magazine was one of the first to tip the Unix-alike open source operating system known as Linux as a dark horse on the computer scene. At the time (around 2 years ago now) the conventional wisdom was that Microsoft was utterly unstoppable and anyone who thought otherwise was certifiable. But at that time, not too many observers had really taken in what the Internet means in terms of the opportunities for structural change in the way all commerce operates. Times change.

Ironically, Microsoft have even used a spoof commercial featuring one of its own people - Vinod doing a pitch Valloppil - for Caldera’s Open Linux in court recently, in an attempt to show that Microsoft has lots of serious competition for Windows. However, as the trial unfolds, the expression “smoking gun” scarcely does justice to much of the testimony, since there is a veritable blazing inferno down at the Microsoft arsenal, and efforts to extinguish the embarrassment created by the exposure of Microsoft’s internal memos and email documents are becoming more and more tenuous.

But don’t be distracted by the sudden MS embrace around Linux - Bill Clinton still looks positively chaste and veracious alongside the unfurling tale of Microsoft’s efforts to put the kibosh on its competitors.

Linux, meantime, ploughs on regardless. It is way, way above the unpleasant commercial considerations that have always besotted the Arch Tradesman of Redmond, as it continues to be free as the air for those that want it. The modest charge made for the CDs is neither here nor there when you consider that a Linux server feeding 1000 users costs maybe $50 for the Linux CD, against the NT server and Bill’s bill for $50,000.

But there are other reasons why Linux refuses to go away, despite the current supremacy of windows, let’s remind ourselves.

1)       Open source means what it says – it means that programmers developing with the operating system are able to get the source code. This has become an rather effective riposte to those who promote “proprietary” operating systems where the developers hide their source code, and who use the argument that Linux is “not a supported operating system”.

2)       Support for Linux is generally better than support for Windows – the user community of the Internet provides more effective support for Linux users than Microsoft does for Windows users. The self-help extends to requests for specific drivers, where a request in an IRC channel frequently produces a response within minutes.

3)       Third world countries cannot afford to licence Windows for their populations – nor could they effectively ever expect to compete writing software for Windows. It’s a different matter with Linux and the internet to distribute the software.

4)       Windows is restricted to a few hardware environments based on Intel’s ubiquitous but inefficient 8086 architecture, the 2,2 Linux kernel now supports x86, SPARC, Alpha, Ultra, m68k, ARM, and PowerPC.

5)       Linux – like Unix – is based on being a networked operating environment. Windows bolted on networking later in life, and it shows. The internet was Unix finest achievement, and it remains mostly based on Unix at the core.

6)       When you install an application on a Linux system, you rarely if ever need to reboot it.

7)       Linux runs very effectively on the sort of hardware that Windows would barely wheeze along with. It’s a great way of mopping up all those old 386 and 486 systems that otherwise have nowhere to go. It’s also a great OS for thin client systems for the internet. 

If by now you are wondering why Windows survives at all, the answer is simple: it has all the applications! Linux has a handful of productivity applications available (Star Office, for example) and a growing range of server database applications – but it takes a huge leap of faith to replace Windows on a PC and expect to replace Word97 with anything so complete that runs under Linux. However, you can run both operating environments on the same PC using a thing called the “boot manager”. And at last, there are rumoured to be plenty of programming tools in the works – but programming in Linux is still very much for C programmers only, whereas Windows programmers have the luxury and power of tools like Visual Studio and Inprise’s Delphi.

So why doesn’t Microsoft just accept that its operating system monopoly is going to be dismantled one way or another, and support Linux with all its applications that are now deemed “industry standard” with good grace - be grateful for having got away with it for so long - and “embrace and extend” Linux..?

Well. Microsoft has a history of elbowing out competition (like Netscape) by fiddling with the operating system (which is monopolises) to make it difficult for competitors to compete. In the wide open world of Linux, Microsoft would (for once) have to compete on quality of product, effectiveness of support and price. Uncharted territory indeed!

It would nevertheless start with the huge advantage of being the established productivity software provider, and it would arguably do its enterprise aspirations a big favour by freeing products like SQL Server and Exchange from the millstone of Windows NT - which still suffers in the big companies because large organisations simply don’t believe that it scales reliably in industrial strength server applications as predictably as UNIX.