Feature: Geeky old Linux gets a Windows makeover

Despite Linux's underdog appeal and expanding share of the server market, using the Unix clone as a desktop operating system has until now been strictly for geeks. Linux has never been able to match Windows 98's nearly hands-free installation, encyclopedic Plug and Play hardware support, and cadre of available applications. Until nowUpstart on a rollTwo new versions from Caldera and Red Hat make the upstart operating system Linux a reasonable alternative for the rest of us. Both offer improved installation programs, broader hardware support, and new graphical interfaces that bear a striking resemblance to Windows. And compared to Windows, Linux costs almost nothing. The Caldera and Red Hat bundles list for between $US40 and $50 each, but they include the OS and hundreds of applications; the base OS itself is available as a free download from hundreds of Web sites.

The advent of these kinder, gentler Linuxes is just one more indication that the alternative OS is on a roll. This year IBM, Compaq and Dell have all announced that they'll install and support Red Hat Linux on desktop computers. Market research firm International Data Corporation says commercial Linux shipments will grow at a rate of 25 per cent per year through 2003, compared to 10 per cent per year for all other desktop operating systems combined.

Nevertheless, Linux has a way to go before it becomes a major OS contender. Latest estimates put its installed base at around 7 to 10 million, compared to the hundreds of millions running some version of Windows.

Up and running in minutes

I tested beta versions of Caldera's OpenLinux 2.2 and Red Hat Linux 6.0 on a Micron Pentium III-500 system. Though I'd installed various flavours of Linux in the past, I'd always given up before getting many key components properly configured.

So I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get Caldera's version installed and working. The OpenLinux bundle includes a special edition of PowerQuest's PartitionMagic, which made creating the necessary Linux disk partitions much easier. After finishing the partitioning in Windows 98, my system rebooted and zipped through the business of installing files and identifying hardware. I met with only one obstacle: the program that configures the graphical interface didn't get my video board settings quite right, preventing the KDE graphical user interface from loading. Experimenting with more conservative settings solved the problem.

The beta version of Red Hat Linux 6.0 was considerably rougher. As we went to press, it was still a couple of weeks away from its planned early May ship date, and my installation experience was bumpier than with OpenLinux. Like OpenLinux, Red Hat Linux 6.0 partitioned my drive and installed files with little intervention from me. But installing hardware was harder. I had to scroll through a list of hundreds of boards to find my Diamond Viper 550 graphics card. And Red Hat's installer couldn't find a driver for my network adapter, so I couldn't use a network connection to the Internet. A configuration utility allowed me to create a dial-up Internet connection, but getting the details right may be trickier than the average Windows Dial-Up Networking user expects.

In both cases, once I had the OS installed, I was ready to explore the graphical user interface and start browsing the Web. Windows veterans should quickly get the hang of OpenLinux's KDE and Red Hat's GNOME.

Both let you store files on the desktop, launch applications and utilities from a pop-up menu, and track running applications with taskbar icons. Most menus and icons display balloon help when you hover the pointer over them. Though they differ in details, and each has its own idiosyncrasies, the interfaces are sufficiently similar -- to Windows and to each other -- that you could switch between either and Windows without developing a personality disorder.

Applications AWOL

Microsoft is unlikely to release a Linux version of its Office suite any time soon, and many bread-and-butter Windows apps may never appear in Linux form. Still, both Linux bundles I looked at ship with literally hundreds of applications and utilities.

Many of these only a Unix geek could love. But bundled programs include Netscape Communicator; a Photoshop-strength image editing application known simply as The Gimp; utilities; and numerous games. Caldera's Linux bundle also comes with copies of Corel WordPerfect 8 for Linux, which reads and writes Word files, and Stardivision's StarOffice 5.1, which includes a word processor, database, and spreadsheet that can read and write most Office file formats (albeit imperfectly).

But ultimately, if you need 100 per cent compatibility with Microsoft Office, or you rely on Office's more advanced features, you'll still need Windows.

And until Linux's authors get around to writing the necessary drivers, you can forget about playing DVDs, connecting to USB devices, and using other newfangled technologies like IEEE 1394 FireWire. But that doesn't mean you can't keep a copy of Linux on the side. After all, if the revolution's coming, it can't hurt to be prepared.

OpenLinux 2.2

http://www.calderasystems.com

Red Hat Linux 6.0

http://www.redhat.com

Frankly speaking: fear of Linux

Hundreds of messages. Literally. That's what poured in after CNN.com reprinted a recent column which ran in the US version of Computerworld on Linux. In the column, the journalist Frank Hayes ridiculed the mainstream media hype that surrounded the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo earlier this year and recommended that IT professionals ignore the hype and evaluate Linux on its merits as software.

Oh, did I get messages. I got messages from people who called me a nitwit for criticising Linux itself (I didn't). Messages that took me to task because I was calling Linux nothing but hype (I wasn't).

And many messages that insisted I missed the most important thing about Linux (though they didn't agree on what that was).

Maybe the most plaintive message was from a webmaster who wanted to know "why Linux is so unpopular in most IT shops. Our CEO really wants to avoid Linux and any other ‘open-source' solutions at any cost. If he chooses Microsoft, then he can follow an established path that really never went anywhere."

That's a familiar cry, isn't it? Especially for IT people old enough to remember when IBM or Digital or Sperry was that safe choice the CEO trusted.

Trouble is, there never has been an easy way to overcome a CEO's fear of new or different technology. It takes hard work, hard numbers and a solid business case -- and that still may not persuade the boss to launch even a pilot project.

But there are a few things that definitely won't encourage a gun-shy boss to try something like Linux.

Don't sing the praises of Linux's internationally distributed development process -- the fact that Linux's programmers are scattered across the globe. Nervous bosses like to know exactly where to turn when there's a problem.

Instead, find a single consulting outfit that can be hired to be your Linux support. No finger-pointing, no confusion -- just one number to call when there's trouble. That's what makes executives feel better.

Tempting as it might be, don't wax enthusiastic about how often Linux revisions and bug fixes arrive. Upgrades, revisions and patches still mean downtime -- and they sound expensive to a nervous boss.

Instead, point out that upgrading -- or not upgrading -- will be completely under your IT shop's control. Overbearing vendors won't be able to strong-arm you into an upgrade. Out-of-business vendors won't be able to leave you orphaned. That's comforting.

If you're adventurous and want to try pushing Linux on the desktop, don't trumpet the fact that all Linux applications are free.

They won't be once you've allocated the staff time to install them and train users. Besides, "free" sounds a lot like "worthless" to many department heads.

Instead, emphasise that you'll be able to control real user costs. That gives those department heads budget flexibility -- and "controlling costs" always sounds good in the executive suite.

Don't try to claim Linux is the wave of the future. That means risk. Don't hype the fact that it's beloved by twentysomething IT wizards -- that smacks of immaturity.

Pitch Linux as reliable, tested and stable. Find and present case studies of Linux in large, successful companies -- including your direct competitors, if possible. If the other guys are using it, your bosses know they're in familiar company.

Finally -- and maybe most important -- don't make promises that sound too good to be true. Nervous bosses don't trust extravagant claims. Neither, for that matter, should you.

Underpromise and overdeliver -- and just maybe you'll undercut and overcome your boss's fear of Linux.

IDC: Linux likely to lead OS growth

Growth in commercial shipments of the Linux operating system (OS) will outpace other client or server operating environments through 2003, according to market researcher International Data Corp. (IDC), which for the first time has removed the increasingly popular Linux from the "other" category in its OS reporting.

Linux commercial shipments will grow at a compound annual rate of 25 per cent from this year through 2003, compared to 10 per cent for all other client operating environments IDC tracks, and 12 per cent for all other server operating environments combined.

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