Linux boosts its hardware support

Lots of us would love to love Linux. The operating system is stable, secure, and--best of all--free. But for many years, tales of installation and configuration hassles have discouraged most desktop users from giving Linux a whirl.

At long last, it may be time to take another look.

The newest version of the Linux operating system core, kernel 2.4, supports a broader range of computer hardware than did its predecessors--most notably USB devices, software modems, and 3D video boards. This increases the odds that your machine will be fully functional after you install the alternative OS.

Meanwhile, several new Linux distributions--packages from commercial vendors that bundle the kernel with graphical installers, user interface software, applications, and utilities--have been thoroughly updated to make the OS more accessible than ever. For instance, new versions of the OS's base XFree86 windowing system and the popular GNOME and KDE desktop environments give Linux a gorgeous look that should appeal to longtime Mac OS and Windows users. An upcoming enhancement to GNOME, Eazel's Nautilus, promises to be the most powerful and intuitive Linux user interface yet.

Ooh La La Linux

German distributor SuSE Linux AG recently released the first kernel 2.4-based distribution, SuSE Linux 7.1 ($30 for the personal edition). Though it includes the GNOME interface as an option, it defaults to the Windows-like KDE 2.0.1 interface. However, distributions due later this year from Red Hat, Mandrake, and other competitors will incorporate later, more stable kernel versions, GUIs, and applications. Wary would-be Windows deserters may prefer to wait for one of these later distributions.

Linux market leader Red Hat Inc. refused to comment on its forthcoming Red Hat Linux 7.1, but a beta version on the company's Web site contained kernel 2.4.1, the latest XFree86, and default firewall installation. More exciting is the possibility Red Hat Linux will ship with GNOME 1.4, which will incorporate Eazel Inc.'s new Nautilus graphical shell--a browser and file manager.

Nautilus seems certain to add depth to the GNOME interface, automatically displaying document contents in the icons that represent them and increasing the functionality of the left-hand panel that in GNOME displays only a file directory.

Eazel hopes to make money by driving users to its Web-based services. A preview release had links to free online storage, and a Linux software catalog that installs programs you click on.

Innovations such as Nautilus may not prompt mass defections from Windows, but they could make Linux more attractive to organizations that have grown weary of mounting Windows licensing fees.