Linux, Linux everywhere at Comdex

This is surely the year of Linux, judging by Fall Comdex ’99. The open-source operating system is all over the show, including at a keynote address, that great litmus test of buzz.

Linux creator Linus Torvalds spoke to a packed ballroom Monday, and the head of application-maker Corel Corp., among others, declared that Linux’s time is now.

“DOS had 10 years, Windows has had the last 10 years and now it’s time for Linux,” said Michael Cowpland, president and chief executive officer of Corel.

Linux is an open OS that has made inroads in the server market but has lagged on the desktop. The knock against Linux has long been that it is too difficult to work with and that there are no applications for it.

“At this point, the perception is that Linux is viable (only) for servers,” said Dan Kusnetzky, a program director at International Data Corp., a research firm in Framingham, Mass.

But at Comdex, announcements and demonstrations from the show floor might change that perception.

Toolmaker Inprise Corp. said it will ship JBuilder for Linux, a Java development tool, in the first quarter of next year, and Linux versions of Inprise’s Delphi and CBuilder will be available in mid-2000, according to Michael Swindell, senior product manager for Linux tools at Inprise. Linux company Red Hat Inc. this week announced its purchase of another Linux company, Cygnus Solutions, for US$674 million, which Red Hat officials said makes the company the biggest Linux services company in the world. On the software side, Corel Corp. is demonstrating six applications for Linux at its booth here this week, including WordPerfect 8, QuattroPro, Paradox and Presentations. “Today, Linux is as easy to use as Windows,” Corel’s Cowpland said.

The arrival of desktop applications is key to computer systems administrator Paul Stoecker’s interest in Corel Linux. Stoecker works for Panasonic Technologies Inc. and supports highly technical users as well as others who simply need a word processor and spreadsheet. “We have a lot of normal business users, in addition to researchers,” Stoecker said. Stoecker’s users are running Solaris, Windows NT and Windows, but the arrival of the Corel Linux OS and related applications may change that equation, he said.

Many users echoed Stoecker’s comments, including Sam McCall, statewide technical support manager at Pacific Bell in Pasadena, Calif. “I’ve got split workgroups,” McCall said. McCall’s business users work on desktops running Windows NT, Windows 98 and Windows 95 and his technical users have Linux.

If Linux is increasingly seen as becoming easier to use and the number of Linux apps increase, the operating system could make real inroads into the corporate market. The growth opportunity for Linux is quite significant, according to IDC. The Linux operating environment, both client and server, is expected to achieve a 25 per cent compound annual growth rate through 2003, according to Kusnetzky. That will include, on the server side, Linux’s securing the number-two spot, behind NT but ahead of NetWare and Unix, Kusnetzky said.

Another potential accelerant of Linux’s success, though hard to measure, is user glee in the open-source, “for-the-people” aspect of Linux. Many attendees expressed delight that Linux has evolved to the point where it can be positioned against Microsoft.

“It’s great because [it offers] more than one choice,” said Paul Nankivell, a software engineer in Simi Valley, Calif. “Windows is like a Ford Edsel (and) it’s not the only car on the road anymore.”

Some users are welcoming Linux simply because they find it fun.

“I have a Linux box out in my shop,” said Gary Norris, who is attending Comdex on behalf of his volunteer work as the IT guy for Accelerated Learning Academy, a kindergarten to 12th-grade non-profit school for handicapped and disabled youngsters in Lancaster, Calif. Norris uses his shop to fix hand-me-down computers used at the school and he also likes to write code.

Norris, who confesses to being a serious geek, likes to write his own applications for things like home financial tracking. He prefers his software simple and so avoids shrink-wrapped packages that have functions he doesn’t need or want.

“It allows me to get back into the program that I’m used to doing,” he said of Linux, adding that he’s not much into Visual Basic, for instance.

But not everyone is eager to get their hands on whatever the latest and greatest technology is. The Artglo Co., a 15-person design firm in Columbus, Ohio, will make do with Windows 98 rather than explore reputedly more stable operating systems such as Linux, according to Grant Beavers, vice-president of Artglo.

“I guess I just feel that’s a whole other piece of software I’d have to learn,” Beavers said. “We don’t have time. We’re too small.”