best tools for the Internet are often free, and well worth a try
by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published
in Business in Vancouver
, Issue #305 August 29, 1995 High Tech Office column
business's data to free software? Some may feel that the price is
right, but others suspect that they'll get what they paid for.
staple of university
computer science departments and sometimes shady local computer
boards, so-called freeware is now making its presence felt on
been a tension
surrounding software design almost from the beginning: programmers,
trained in universities, are often taught that their creations are
the result of scientific research. In other words, it is viewed as
new knowledge that should be made freely available. This has been
most noticeable with the Unix operating system, now found on many
corporate networks. This software was long owned by AT&T,
but for years, it was mostly used in academic circles, where students
felt empowered to modify it and freely distribute the results.
ace programmer Richard Stallman quit his professorship at MIT
the Free Software Foundation to protest the increasing
of Unix. The result of his efforts has been a series of GNU (perhaps
standing for 'Gnu's Not Unix') software development tools--free
to help develop other free programs.
free program has only become famous over the past few years. Mosaic
was developed by a group of students (namely, undergraduate Mark
Andreesen) at the University of Illinois' National Center for
Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). It dramatically changed the way
people used the Internet, and directly led to the current boom in
interest in the 'Net. It was and still is distributed free.
left the NCSA to join Netscape, a commercial startup which
markets enhanced Internet software products. But even there, he has
been forced to make the Netscape Web browser, a competitor to Mosaic,
the Linux operating system, has been quietly moving from
to "serious" business use. Linux is a powerful operating system that
is basically equivalent to Unix, complete with multitasking. It started
off with a core developed by Finnish grad student Linus Torvalds,
and spread over to the Internet. But while a commercial Unix package
costs several thousand dollars, Linux, which currently runs on PCs
and is being rewritten for other processors including the PowerPCs,
can be freely distributed. It can be downloaded free, or users can
purchase any of a number of versions collected on CD-ROM (together
with the GNU tools) for about $50. It is estimated that between 500,000
and one million computers are already running Linux, with vendors
selling an additional 50,000 copies a month. And expectations are that
Linux will soon be the most common Unix variation used on PCs. Even
hardware giant Digital Equipment is working to bring Linux to
its powerful Alpha-chip computers, and Startup Caldera has
announced an agreement with Novell to bring WordPerfect 6.0 for Unix
over to the Linux environment.
free products, companies are now being faced with the question of
whether to trust their equipment--and even more importantly, their
data--to free, often poorly supported software. The support issue
is important: free software is released without the documentation
and technical support of a commercial software company, so if something
goes wrong for the user, who can the user call?
companies are turning
this into a business advantage. This fall, Caldera is releasing
its Caldera Network Desktop, a Linux-based system, complete with
support. Cygnus, a 50-employee company, provides support for
the GNU programs. And for a $32 registration fee, businesses can
their otherwise-free copies of the Netscape Internet browser, entitling
them to support from the company.
can be associated
with cheap, and, by implication, shoddy products. Local Internet
provider Deep Cove, for example, has put together a package
of free and shareware Internet access tools, complete with an
video, for $32. Can this package appeal to the corporate mindset more
than $200-to-$500 packages such as Netmanage's Internet
PC Unix provider SCO raised the price of its operating system
when it found it was losing business to higher-priced competitors.
It seems SCO's pricing policies had led many businesses to assume
that they must be second rate.
justifiable) prejudices, free software seems to have a growing future,
even in an understandably conservative business environment. It's
proving very difficult to market an Internet browser that isn't free,
and while most companies would be hard-pressed to justify running
an entire enterprise on a free Linux-based network, for many, the idea
of turning a spare PC into a free Unix workstation just by adding Linux
is proving hard to resist.
the price is
right, isn't it?