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Linux code warriors march to the beat of a different drummer

By Kathryn Balint
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

May 1, 2001

In the oh-so-maddening world of computing, most people line the pockets of a billionaire in return for software that has more bugs than a car windshield.

Not Jason Fornelli.

This San Diego techie doesn't do Windows.

He is part of a ragtag army of rebels that uses Linux rather than a Microsoft operating system to run their desktop computers.

Meet the Linux master

The public is invited to hear Linux evangelist Jon "maddog" Hall speak May 16 at a special meeting of the San Diego Linux Users Group.

Hall, executive director of Linux International, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the operating system, is scheduled to speak from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the University of California San Diego's Price Center, ballroom B.

The event is free, but those planning to attend are asked to register at http://www.sdlug.org. Parking is $3.

Linux (which, perhaps aptly, rhymes with cynics) is an operating system developed in the Internet's underground and distributed for free as an alternative to Windows. Linux's populist roots, its anti-Microsoft sentiment, combined with a cheeky penguin named Tux as its mascot, attract an almost cultlike following.

"I didn't like having to spend a lot of money for all that Microsoft software then being told I had to upgrade for a lot more money the next year," said Fornelli, a software engineer.

But the savings are just part of Linux's appeal.

Linux users say it runs computers more efficiently, proficiently and reliably. Linux isn't prone to the kind of lockups and system crashes, such as the "blue screen of death" that Windows is infamous for, they say.

Completely foreign

Yet, for all its pluses, Linux can be daunting to all but the savviest computer users.

It's an operating system -- no, a culture -- that's completely foreign, if not downright scary, to many of us in the point-and-click crowd.

In Linux land, people talk about "kernels," "distributions" and "open-source software."

They throw "installfests," where experienced users help newbies load Linux onto their machines.

And, for amusement, they poke fun at Microsoft.

Better get used to it.

Linux is playing more of a role in our computing lives than we may realize, even if we don't use it on our personal computers. And, by most accounts, its role is only going to get bigger.

"Linux isn't something you'll necessarily see," said Brian Hedges, founder of the San Diego Linux Users Group and a software developer for Delphi Research, which provides Linux support services. "But it's going to be here in a big way."

Just not necessarily on your computer desktop.

For all of its idiosyncrasies, Windows is the operating system of choice for nine out of 10 personal computers. Linux is on only a small fraction of computer desktops -- between 2 percent and 4 percent by several estimates -- mostly because it requires such a high level of technical skill and lacks a wide selection of software designed to run on it.

That's changing a bit. There are programs now that give Linux computers the same kind of easy-to-understand screen graphics that Windows has. And major computer makers, including IBM and Dell, are offering Linux on consumers' personal machines as an alternative to Windows.

Internet powered

Behind the scenes, though, is where Linux is making its biggest mark.

It's already a major player on the Internet, running more than a fourth of the powerful computers that host Web sites.

Microsoft Windows still dominates, with 40 percent of the market, but maybe not for long.

Research by International Data Corp. shows that Linux was the fastest-growing operating system for Web servers last year. And a report released last month by London-based software firm Idaya predicts that Linux will become the dominant operating system on Web servers worldwide by the middle of next year.

For Net surfers, that means fewer headaches trying to access Web pages because, technical experts say, the Linux-powered sites are less likely to go down.

"My Linux Web server has been up for eight months without any interruptions," says Richard Greenwood, a San Diego Internet consultant who hosts more than 1,400 Web sites. "With Microsoft Windows, you have to reboot almost daily."

In what may have an even larger impact on our lives, Linux is beginning to show up in everyday devices. We might not necessarily think of them as computers, but they have microprocessors embedded within them.

Already, Linux is used to control the tiny computers in everything from personal digital assistants and microwave ovens to medical equipment and vending machines.

TiVo, the personal digital video recorder that allows television viewers to tape and manage their favorite programs, is probably one of the best-known appliances run by Linux.

Big savings

One of the biggest incentives for companies to use Linux is that they don't have to pay fees for it, as they would for a proprietary operating system. For their customers, that could mean big savings.

Microsoft has taken notice of the little penguin nipping at its heels. In January, the software giant's chief executive, Steve Ballmer, called Linux "threat No. 1."

That's a big compliment for an operating system that was created 10 years ago on nothing more than a whim.

As the near-legendary story goes, Finnish university student Linus Torvalds holed himself up in his dorm room to write his own operating system because he couldn't afford Unix, the system preferred by techies at the time.

Then he did something that would have been unthinkable to Bill Gates. Torvalds posted his code in progress on the Internet and solicited suggestions on how to make it better.

The international community of computer programmers offered help. They continue to help fine-tune Linux even today (the latest version of the "kernel," the brains behind the systems, was released in January). Many people say that is what makes Linux such a stable operating system.

Of course, this one-for-all, all-for-one type of approach is diametrically opposed to the way Microsoft operates. Microsoft programmers wouldn't think of revealing Windows' underlying source code, much less posting it on the Net, free for the taking.

Accessible code

For years, the digerati have said that buying proprietary programs like Windows is like buying a car with the hood welded shut. You can't get to the engine to tune it.

That's why they like Linux so much. They can view Linux's "open source" code and tweak it all they want.

"It's freedom, to allow me to innovate," said Hedges, the software developer.

Software makers like Red Hat and Caldera started popping up and putting Linux on CD-ROMs, along with some other useful programs. They package their "distributions" with instruction manuals and sell them for $30 or so as a desktop operating system. Some distributions can be bought off the Net for as little as $3.

Compared with Windows, there's much less software available for Linux. But what there is costs next to nothing.

Linux users, for instance, can download Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, an alternative to Microsoft Office, for free.

So just how does anyone make any money off Linux? By selling the powerful computers and support services for Linux.

IBM sees promise in Linux. So much so that Big Blue has committed to spend $1.3 billion on Linux over the next three years.

"Linux is a game changer," said Mary Ann Fisher, IBM's Linux program director, who flew from the East Coast last month to address the San Diego Linux Users Group. "It completely opens the door to a new level of technological innovation."

The buttoned-up executives at IBM have even tried to adopt a counterculture spirit by stenciling its "Peace, Love and Linux" campaign on San Francisco's sidewalks. But the city ordered IBM to remove the chalk stencils.

Local backers

In San Diego County, there is a small but hard-core contingent of Linux users, some of whom can be found in the San Diego Linux Users Group (http://www.sdlug.org) or the Kernel-Panic Linux Users Group (http://www.kernel-panic.org).

San Diego's following may not be large enough to merit funky stenciled sidewalks, but it is enough to warrant a visit on May 16 from Linux bigwig Jon "maddog" Hall, who, like his nickname implies, is among the most rabid Linux supporters.

Hall is executive director of Linux International, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the use of the upstart operating system.

This past week, Hall was at a Linux conference in Africa.

"There's just a great deal of excitement around Linux, which I have never seen in any operating system in the 30 years I've been in the business," he said in a telephone interview.

For members of San Diego Linux Users Group, bringing Hall here to speak on May 16 at the University of California San Diego is a coup. They expect their biggest turnout ever.

"We're actively promoting Linux in a big way in San Diego," Hedges said.

For all the hype, though, even Hedges admits there's a downside to Linux.

"If you're looking for someone to blame, there's no one," he said. "There's no Bill Gates to hate here."

 



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