The headquarters of search company Google in Mountain View, Calif., look like the office of any other Silicon Valley dot-com, with roomfuls of engineers and programmers working busily at their PCs. There's one big difference: More than half of those PCs don't run on Microsoft Windows. Instead, engineers are developing tools and programs using Linux, the open-source operating system that has started to make inroads against the Microsoft programs that power both servers and desktop computers.
Since Linux is free, Google saves the cost of Microsoft's license fees, though Jim Reese, Google's chief engineering officer, won't say how much that is. Almost as important, Reese adds, is that his company saves hours of productive work time because Linux hardly ever crashes.
On Oct. 25, the day Microsoft formally debuts its new XP operating system -- or OS, the software that controls the basic functions of a computer -- the software king will begin a determined effort to fend off Linux and other interlopers. XP is almost certain to slow the enemy advance: Though many techies and software engineers have embraced Linux, it's still hard for the average person to use. And no one -- not even Linux evangelists -- believes that it will loosen Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop anytime soon.
FEWER STRINGS. Even so, this year's severe cuts in corporate tech spending -- combined with Microsoft's onerous new licensing program for XP (see "These Licenses May Be a Colossal Blunder") -- could prove to be a window of opportunity for non-Windows software. For one thing, Linux and StarOffice, Sun Microsystems' open-source alternative to Microsoft Office, are either cheap or free, and they come with many fewer strings attached. Since Linux' underlying source code is available to any programmer, companies can tweak the software any way they like -- something Microsoft doesn't permit with XP.
Increasingly, the combination of minimum cost and maximum flexibility is making Linux a compelling alternative to Microsoft for cash-strapped schools, local governments, and businesses in developing countries. "Many end users are questioning Microsoft's licensing practices -- and the release of XP exacerbates the issue," says Stacey Quandt, an analyst with Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass. Microsoft's new plan would require licensees to pay a yearly fee to qualify for upgrades or else buy a new system every few years.
Of course, Microsoft isn't exactly on the ropes. In 2000, it had 91% of the desktop OS market, up from 88% in 1999, according to research firm International Data Corp. Apple's Macintosh OS was No. 2 with 4.1% of the market, down from 4.5% the year before. And Linux had 1.5%, up a blip from 1.3%. But IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky notes that the Linux figures could be understated, since IDC tracks only software sales. By contrast, many users download Linux for free, or buy just one copy from a commercial Linux vendor, such as RedHat, and legally make dozens -- even hundreds -- more copies.
EXTENDING PC LIFESPANS. Thus, Giga Information Group estimates that Linux runs on about 5% of desktop computers worldwide and at least 30% of corporate servers. Whatever the actual number, Linux' share of the desktop market is growing. Kusnetzsky believes that by 2005, Linux will have surpassed the Mac's operating system and officially capture the No. 2 spot -- and that it will continue to become more widely used in the U.S. and abroad.
Public schools in the U.S. could play a huge role in Linux' ascent. Each new generation of Microsoft software seems to contain more code than the last, so it must be run on faster, more expensive computers, which are often beyond the reach of public school systems. Linux, by contrast, is smaller and can run on "outdated" machines powered by Intel Pentium 90 and even older 486 chips.
That's a key selling point for school systems that often rely on donated PCs. "A lot of schools are faced with cutting teachers and having no money for basic facilities. But they are paying millions a year to the richest corporation in the world," says Andreas Pour, chairman of the KDE League, a Linux advocacy group.
PRESSING PHILLY. School systems might also make the switch because of the public head-butting they're getting from Microsoft over license fees and upgrades. Witness the recent case involving Philadelphia's school system. Microsoft officials initiated an investigation of the schools after it received tips that employees there were installing single-user copies of Microsoft Office on more than one machine.
The school system has agreed to an audit of its computer networks, but that's a distraction it can probably ill afford. Last June, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that unless the school system received a cash advance from city or state officials, it might be unable to meet the payroll for its 27,000 employees.
Overseas could prove another bleeding-edge market for Linux. Brazil is one of the leaders in encouraging the use of software that costs less to run than Redmond-ware, though countries throughout Asia and Europe are also adopting such policies. Last year, the government of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southernmost state, passed a law that in some cases requires government agencies to use "software livre." The choice of words is telling. In Portuguese, "livre" means free as in freedom -- not as in free of charge.
GNU TO YOU. The policy is part of a countrywide plan to eliminate the digital barrio. Last May, Timothy Ney, the executive director of the GNOME foundation, which aims to spread the word about the GNU flavor of Linux. (The name GNU is an inside programmers' joke about Linux. It stands for GNU's Not Unix, the OS on which Linux is based. It's pronounced Guh-Nu.) Ney visited Rio Grande do Sul for the opening of the first two schools that have implemented Linux for their classroom computer labs. "This was a school where a couple years before, kids were coming to without shoes," he says. The state government plans to roll out Linux on desktops in 2,700 schools.
Linux' lower cost is a huge incentive. According to PROCERGS, Brazil's state information technology authority, the savings in proprietary software license fees for Rio Grande do Sul from using Linux will be approximately $20 million. Additionally, individual institutions are reducing costs. By using SAGU, a free administrative program, instead of proprietary
software atop database software such as Microsoft's SQL, Rio Grande do Sul's state university has saved about $500,000.
The newest release of Sun's StarOffice productivity suite is also a boon for organizations struggling to make ends meet. The beta version of StarOffice, released Oct. 2, is simplified to make file exchange easier, and Sun claims it's less bulky and sluggish than previous versions. The final release will be available in early 2002. "For third-world countries, the price tag is a big thing," says Miguel de Icaza, chief technical officer of Ximian Corp., which develops applications for the GNU user interface.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE. In many instances, the biggest threat to XP may not be Linux but Microsoft itself. Gates & Co. makes most of its money from corporations, and analysts doubt that companies with suddenly tight technology budgets will upgrade quickly from earlier versions of Windows such as Windows 2000 and Windows ME. Additionally, system upgrades make many chief information officers leery, since a changeover often causes crashes and requires extra training -- two things no one wants to deal with during a budget crunch. "For most offices, not upgrading is the cheapest and quickest way to keep costs down," says Clay Shirky, a partner at consulting firm the Accelerator Group.
Microsoft makes a strong case that XP has nothing to fear from Linux. It argues that using Linux actually costs more, thanks to higher spending that's required for support and training. A Microsoft spokesman also points out that many key business applications won't run on Linux, including Microsoft Office and popular business software packages from SAP and Siebel Systems.
In fact, so-called emulator software called WINE might allow Linux machines to use some of these applications -- but it's largely untested. A recent move by Dell supports Microsoft's position: In August, the leading PC maker, citing weak demand, announced that it would no longer pre-install Linux on desktop and laptop computers.
MORE ACCESSIBLE. Still, Microsoft may have reason to worry. Kids who learn Linux in school could in subsequent years become the mid-tier adopters that the OS has lacked so far. Such a group could help Linux develop critical mass on desktop machines just as techies' love of Linux helped it infiltrate the Web server world. Linux now runs on 29.6% of Web servers, according to a September survey from Netcraft.
In fact, Linux aficionados increasingly are focusing on making the OS more accessible to everyday users. In August, Linus Torvalds, Linux' chief architect and founder of the open-source movement, told an audience at industry confab LinuxWorld that one of the movement's top priorities should be to make Linux easier to use. If that happens, Microsoft better start looking over its shoulder. By Jane Black in New York