- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

The convention last week featured a barn-burner of a keynote address by a young leader in his field. Delegates, to use one description, were lined up around the block to get a seat for the address. Around the convention hall were people in funny costumes, not protesting, but promoting.

No, it wasn't a political gathering in Los Angeles. Some 400 miles to the north, in the capital of Silicon Valley, the LinuxWorld exposition and conference created a fair amount of excitement, with none of the protests and riot police who attended that other confab. And yet, regardless of one's politics, it wouldn't be difficult to imagine that the LinuxWorld meeting may in many ways have a greater impact on American life.

This intends no disrespect to the Democrats or Republicans. But while governments and leaders come and go how many folks remember Woodrow Wilson's vice president, for example technology seems to have a permanence and impact sometimes beyond expectations. Last week the story emerged that an enterprising company has found a way to "wrap" COBOL programming code, some of which is older than most people in today's computer business, into an HTML Web page. Thus, a programming language long thought "dead" soldiers on.

The impact of Linux, a 10-year-old experiment in an "open-source" operating system, may be exponentially greater than that of COBOL. Or, it may yet fizzle, as did Digital Research Corp.'s pioneering operating system of 20-plus years ago, Control Program for Microcomputers, known as CP/M. At this moment, however, Linux is hot, hot, hot and the events in San Jose confirm this.

There are two reasons, at least, for Linux's popularity. One is that there's no connection between Linux and Microsoft Corp., which means a lot to some people in the computer world. The other is that it is an extremely compact and flexible operating system, which can go into things ranging from a handheld computer all the way up to enterprise-class systems. Some versions of Linux can be had free of charge; others are sold at very nominal prices, especially when compared with the price tag of, say, Windows 2000 Professional, released earlier this year by Microsoft.

The crowds lined up to hear Michael Dell of Dell Computer Corp., say that Linux will help Dell in its quest to keep rival Sun Microsystems from dominating the enterprise computer/ networking/server market. The good news there, of course, is competition, which breeds innovation and lower prices. Mr. Dell, arguably one of the most prescient and consistently correct people in the computer business, may be on to something here. But Sun, long a mainstay of the Unix computer business, is aggressively moving into Linux, along with other computing powerhouses such as Hewlett Packard and Compaq Computer Corp., all of whom are following IBM Corp.'s lead into this market.

Though primarily used for network servers, Web servers and other high-powered applications, Linux will arrive on desktop computers, on work stations and "Internet appliances" that connect folks to the Web without the "legacy" details of today's PCs. Applications are migrating to the Web as well, where software can be rented by the month or year, or accessed for free in an advertising-supported business model. In these areas, Linux offers the advantages of being lower cost in dollars and in system overhead than Microsoft Windows, as well as being more reliable in many instances.

It's still an open question no pun intended as to just how easy it might be for the average user to unwrap a copy of Linux, from vendors such as Red Hat, VA Linux or Mandrake Systems, say, load it on a PC and be off and running. Device drivers, the little bits of code that let us run CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives, tape backups, modems, printers and a hundred other devices aren't all there yet, although many of these are arriving quickly.

Companies such as HP have gotten the Linux "religion" and are said to be working hard to make drivers for the printers and other peripherals available. And because Linux is an "open" software product, one for which anyone can write add-ins without licensing anything, the motivation of people to create their own drivers is strong.

On the applications side, Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite is a big hit here, because it, too, is free. Containing a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, Web browser and e-mail client, among other tools, StarOffice is designed for installation on a computer, although a Web version is planned soon. Meanwhile, VistaSource's AnywareOffice is a server-based software programming offering similar productivity applications.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to set up one of my computers as a Linux system and see if one can indeed live life in a different operating world. It'll be an interesting experiment, one that may well be replicated in corporate and government offices around the country. Meanwhile, it's clear that Linux bears more than a cursory glance right now.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.markkellner.com.

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