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Linux: tomorrow's Windows or fad-of-the-year?

Bill Gates' real bete noire may turn out to be not a resurgent Apple or posse of government lawyers, but an obscure Finnish computer programmer named Linus Torvalds. In 1991, while a student at the University of Helsinki, Torvalds began work on Linux (LINN-ux), a new operating system similar to Unix. In the following years, it became an underground hit with computer geeks. Although it is more complicated to set up than the far more popular Windows and Apple operating systems, many programmers claim it is more stable--a lot less prone to crash. But one of its biggest advantages is that it's free and open. Torvalds and a loosely knit community of programmers continually update it, and anyone can download it, package and sell it and create application programs that will run on it. Still, it might have always remained a minor player, except that earlier this year, amid growing public dissatisfaction with Microsoft's near monopoly, IBM threw its support behind Linux.

Corporations--major purchasers of operating systems have had two main problems with Linux: Since there is no "Linux Company," it has Been hard to get support. And very few programs were being written for it. (That is, there were few spreadsheet, word processing and accounting programs that would run on Linux.) However, IBM is shipping its Netfinity network server computers with Linux installed alongside Windows NT. The hardware giant will offer support through a leading Linux distributor, Red Hat Software, Inc. (www.redhat.com). And leading chip manufacturer Intel also showed its support for Linux by making an investment in Red Hat. Hewlett-Packard and Dell too are beginning to sell machines that can run Linux.

Meanwhile, more applications are being written that will run on Linux. The Journal spoke with Errol Allahverdi, president of Appgen Business Software, Inc. (www. appgen.com). "We always made Unix--and later, Windows--software, which we sell through resellers. They started asking us, `Can't you write something for Linux?' We said we could--but what would we do about support for the customers?" Appgen found its solution by getting together with Caldera, Inc. (www.caldera. com)--a Linux distributor like Red Hat--which was willing to form a partnership with Appgen to support Linux products. Appgen now offers a suite of accounting products that run on Linux. "We found it very stable. You just can't afford downtime in mission-critical tasks, so Linux stability is a big selling point." Allahverdi said many network servers now run Linux, especially Web servers necessary for e-commerce. "I used to think it was nonsense for Microsoft to worry about competition. But not anymore."

Nevertheless, Windows remains the overwhelming favorite. And programmers have pointed out that Linux is still difficult to set up and may not make an easy transition from a server product to a desktop operating system--for the average user, Linux may turn out to be a flash in the pan. But as one IT consultant said, "Maybe Linux's popularity will scare Microsoft into making better products."

To explore the frontier

Not even the most gung-ho Linux supporters are saying Windows-based applications will disappear anytime soon--if ever. Still, the curious CPA can explore this new system. Although the adventurous can download Linux and start experimenting (see www. whatis.com, under "Linux," for details), it may be easier to buy a packaged version that includes some support. In addition to the distributors noted above, S.u.S.E (www.suse.com) also sells Linux. Resources for the novice and a history of Linux are available at www.linux.org.
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Title Annotation:computer operating system
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:586
Previous Article:Top 10 technologies - plus 5 for tomorrow.
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