- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Few outside of geekdom have heard of “open-source” code, or the battle between Microsoft Corp. and an operating system called Linux. Yet it’s a pretty big deal. Whatever the outcome, it will be major for computing.

In order to work, a computer needs software called an operating system that manages other programs. Most desktops use Windows, from Microsoft. A variety of other operating systems exists, usually obscure, or techy, or intended for special purposes. Windows dominates by a huge margin. Or did.

Many people don’t like Windows, which they say, correctly or not, is clunky, buggy and insecure. (Don’t write me letters about this. Computer weenies will furiously debate all four sides of a question that has only two. No more fractious group of people exists.)

Many corporate information-technology managers also don’t like Microsoft. They say the company uses its near-monopoly to compel the purchase of endless upgrades, and that Microsoft intrudes too much in how companies use its programs.

In 1991, a gifted guy named Linus Torvalds came along. He was a 21-year-old student at the University of Helsinki and is now the world’s best-known programmer. He was a bit of an anarchist, like a lot of people in computing. He wrote an operating system called Linux.

Now, a kid of 21 can’t write a successful operating system. Neither can a college kid write Napster and turn the world upside down. But in computing, very smart kids regularly do things that can’t be done. They don’t know any better.

The important thing about Linux was that it was open-source code. A paragraph or two of technoglop and we’ll come to interesting consequences:

A program, such as an operating system, comes in two forms: 1) “Source code,” written in a programming language that programmers can understand and, if it isn’t copyrighted, modify; and (2) “executable code,” which is a horrendous string of zeros and ones that only a computer can understand. When you buy, say, Microsoft Word, you get only the executable form. It runs. You can’t modify it. And in any event, it’s copyrighted.

Linux, in contrast, is public domain. Anyone can get the source code, and modify it. And it’s free. All over the planet, tens of thousands of anarchic, often Microsoft-hating computer weenies began improving it and extending it.

Linux didn’t take the world by storm. At first it was too new, unsophisticated and techy. But it is beginning to take hold in places. It is robust, meaning that it doesn’t crash as Microsoft products sometimes do. Managers who want to get out from under Microsoft’s thumb are starting to adopt it. Cost is lower, with no compulsory upgrades and no Microsoftian intrusiveness.

Linux is actually becoming something of a threat to Microsoft. Fairly big markets have adopted Linux. China, for example. The Chinese were tired of accusations of software piracy, and you can’t pirate Linux. Windows costs too much for most Chinese, and they didn’t want to be dominated by an American firm with possible links to government.

Because Linux is more reliable than Windows, it is used on large numbers of Web servers. It is no longer a toy.

And now whole cities are adopting it. The government of Munich has decided to drop Microsoft in favor of Linux, according to IDG News Service, an information-technology publishing company.

That’s 14,000 computers. Munich intends to drop Microsoft products entirely. This had Microsoft worried enough that Steve Ballmer, the CEO, went to Munich to lobby against the switch. Other cities in Germany are considering dropping Microsoft.

Where is it leading? Beats me. But it just may turn into a horse race.

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