Watch Yourself, Microsoft. Here Comes Linux

The free operating system is still rough, but it's catching up fast

About six months ago, I first started playing with the Linux operating system, a piece of software that, like Microsoft Windows, does the basic chores of running a computer and connecting to the Internet. Linux was making a mark as an alternative to Windows NT for running the network workhorses called servers, and I thought Linux was a neat toy for students and hobbyists. But I thought it would be years before Linux was ready for ordinary folks, since it was way too difficult to install and use.

Boy, was I wrong. Linux' cheery Penguin logo isn't about to drive the Windows flag off of millions of desktops. But if it progresses as fast as it has in the past few months, Linux could soon be a contender, especially in business. It faces many challenges, but Linux is more secure and less crash-prone than Windows 95 or 98, and will run well on much less powerful hardware than Windows NT.

What changed things so quickly? Linux, distributed since the early '90s mainly by downloads from the Net, has been commercialized. The software remains free, but U.S. distributors, notably Red Hat ( and Caldera Systems (www., realized they could sell packages that simplify installation and use.

Caldera offers the better approach. Its OpenLinux 2.2 ($39) includes PowerQuest's PartitionMagic, which makes it simple to set up a computer to offer a choice of Windows or Linux at bootup. Its Windows-based Linux installation is no harder than a Windows upgrade. I installed it easily on several computers, failing only on a Gateway Profile, whose flat-panel display didn't like the video settings I tried. Red Hat Linux 6.0 ($75), while much improved, has a DOS installation procedure that requires a lot of knowledge of your machine's configuration. Macmillan Computer Publishing offers an enhanced version of Red Hat that includes Partition Magic, in three versions ranging from $30 to $80.

Linux is just the hidden core of the operating system, which runs the programs and maintains the files. For a computer to be useful, it also needs a good user interface--that collection of icons, windows, and buttons that allows humans to interact easily with computers. Until a few months ago, Linux came with a crude graphical interface called X-windows. Many chores still required typing cryptic commands like "egrep" and "chmod."

I doubted whether the loose cooperative of programmers that maintains and extends Linux could design an interface as usable as Windows or the Mac. Wrong again. Linux comes with a choice of two interfaces, the Free Software Foundation's slick GNOME and the even slicker K Desktop Environment from the KDE Project. Neither is as polished or intuitive as Windows or the Mac, but both are about 75% of the way there.

I'm not about to suggest that everyone rush out and start using Linux. Hardware support is limited, with sound cards and inkjet printers being particular problems. The bigger impediment is the lack of ready-to-run software. Both Red Hat and Caldera bundle text editors, games, and other programs, including Netscape Communicator 4.5 for E-mail and Web browsing. Corel offers WordPerfect. Germany's Star Division has StarOffice, a complete suite. After that, it gets sparse, though IBM is working on Lotus Notes for Linux.

This will keep most from giving up Windows soon. But Linux' growing popularity will entice software developers. And if you're adventurous, you might want to give it a try. I think you'll be impressed by the potential.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.