[copyleft vs. copyright]

Operating system: Microsoft has reason to be concerned about the growing popularity of a free, open-source program that runs on nearly any computer.

April 12, 1999|By Sean Gallagher | Sean Gallagher,Special to the Sun

ask average people to name the most influential person in the computer industry, and you'll probably hear Microsoft's Bill Gates. Unless they're Apple fans, who will probably give the nod to founding father Steve Jobs. But for many of the world's top geeks, a third name looms even larger than those giants -- Linus Torvalds.

Linus who?

That's Torvalds, a quiet, self-effacing Finnish programmer who started what may be a revolution in the computer industry. In 1991, he was a college student studying computer science in Helsinki when he began work on an experimental operating system -- the critical software that controls computers and allows all other programs to run.

His creation was based on Unix, which runs many of the world's most powerful computers and workstations. But Torvalds wanted his operating system to run on ordinary desktop computers. Looking for help, he posted his source code on the Internet and asked anyone with expertise to pitch in. He named the system after himself, and Linux was born.

Ever since, Torvalds has joked about his goal of "world domination" for Linux. But the idea has become a lot more plausible over the last two years as Linux has become the fastest- growing operating system in the business. Now installed on at least 7 percent of the world's computers, it runs on Intel PCs, Macintoshes and at least a dozen other machines.

If Torvalds has his way, someday Linux will be your operating system. And it won't cost you much -- if anything.

Internal memos show that Microsoft officials are worried about the young Finn and his followers. Many other software publishers and hardware makers see Linux as the new Microsoft alternative. Internet service providers see a cheap and effective tool to provide customers with e-mail, Web pages and other services. Even more worrisome for Gates and company, businesses and organizations are buying computers with Linux installed.

At LinuxWorld, the first trade show for the operating system, thousands of users and developers lined up in February to hear Torvalds speak in a rock concert atmosphere. IBM, Dell, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and other big players were there to pay tribute and announce new Linux products.

The big names were also betting their money -- investing in companies that distribute and support Linux such as Red Hat Software of Research Triangle Park, N.C. In fact, the only big outfit that didn't show up was Microsoft.

So far, most Linux acolytes are people who run networks and Internet businesses. They like its low cost, reliability and ease of administration. The question is whether Linux will make converts in the biggest market of all -- desktop computer users. For that to happen, Linux will have to become friendlier, and software publishers will have to write Linux versions of word processors, spreadsheets and other common programs.

There's no question that Linux is a good system for heavy Internet users -- all of the utility programs commonly used on the Internet are built in or bundled with it. Corel makes a version of its WordPerfect word processor for Linux that has all of the functionality of its Windows version, and Netscape gives away a Linux version of its Communicator Web browser.

A company called PC Free plans to ship 500 Linux-equipped systems in a New Hampshire test market. The company offers free PCs to customers willing to pay $40 a month for Internet service.

Torvalds works for a mysterious Silicon Valley start-up called TransMeta. "We do stuff," is his official description of the company's activities. On the side, he maintains the kernel of Linux (the core of the operating system), and works with a worldwide army of Linux programmers on improvements and enhancements.

What makes Linux different from other operating systems is the concept of a "public license." The system and the source programs that it is compiled from are available free on the Internet -- and can be freely modified by other programmers to meet their needs or fix bugs.

Because of the public license, called a "copyleft" by some developers, programmers also must make any of their changes and enhancements freely available. The best ideas are incorporated into new official releases.

As a result, Linux has become the "stone soup" of operating systems, attracting some of the best minds in computing to donate their time, expertise and intellectual property rights. They have created a computer counterculture, with its own brand identity. Apple has its apple, Microsoft has its flying windows, and Linux has a penguin, based on a character from the British animated movie series, "Wallace and Gromit."

They've also made the Linux project -- it can't really be called a product -- the focal point of what can only be called a movement -- the Free Software movement.

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