ISSUE 591: Zisman- Feb 20 2001
The high-tech office
Linux may be less
popular, but it quietly struggles on
Is it just me? Or has anyone else noticed that
the hype around an operating system that appeared to be on the verge of
sweeping onto everyone's desktop has died down?
Some of it may be the decline of share prices of
formerly high-flying Linux companies. Richmond, Virginia-based VA
Linux, with a 2000 high of US$225, is now selling somewhere in the
high single digits, for example. Ottawa's Corel, which released
perhaps the easiest to install and use Linux distribution, has backed
out of that business to focus on its core competencies: Word Perfect
and Corel Draw, primarily for the Windows market. (Still, Corel will
continue to produce and sell applications for both the Mac and Linux
Obviously, Linux didn't take over most computer
desktops last year and it's unlikely to do so this year, even though
this Open Source operating system keeps getting easier to install and
more powerful, and a fuller range of applications is appearing.
Linux continues to gain popularity, just in areas that
are less obvious. Linux remains, along with its cousin BSD, popular
with people setting up Internet servers. In fact, its share of the
server market continues to grow, though perhaps more at the expense of
its commercial big brother Unix than of Microsoft's NT and
Windows 2000. IBM and Compaq now offer servers with
Linux preinstalled. IBM, in particular, is making Linux available on an
increasing range of its product line, all the way up to its powerful
Linux is showing up in point-of-sale systems,
sometimes in unexpected places. For example, it powers the tills at
Commercial Drive's East End Food Co-op. And it's been shrunk
down to an embedded version that's being used for some mobile phones
and tested by the US army, powering a diagnostic system for military
As a result, Linux is behind the scenes in more places
than ever, but keeps a low profile in the home- and office-desktop
markets. Many users are interested in at least experimenting with the
operating system, even if they're not quite ready to cut the cord to
the ubiquitous world of Microsoft-powered computing. But unless they're
connected into a community of Linux users, it can be scary to just dive
Yes, Linux (like its Unix forebears) includes pages of
online manuals, accessible via the Unix "man" command. But plowing
through pages of often poorly written text online is not an effective
way for most of us to learn. And it assumes users already have a Linux
system up and running and have enough knowledge to be able to know what
they're looking for.
And most of the "introduction to Linux" books that
I've looked at either didn't have the information I needed or assumed I
knew more than I actually did. Their "explanations" raised more
questions than they answered.
If, like me, you're relatively comfortable with
Windows computers but a curious Linux newbie, John Lathrop's Linux
Desktop Starter Kit may be worth a peek (McGraw Hill, about
It claims to be "everything you need to install,
configure and get started with Linux, quickly and easily." Well, like
everything about computers, it's never as quick and easy as claimed.
The book includes CDs with two Linux versions (known as "distributions"
among the know-it-alls) -- Red Hat 6.1 and Caldera Open Linux 2.3. It
discusses working with these as well as Turbolinux and Suse Linux.
The book does an especially good job of helping
Windows users get started with Linux while still continuing to work in
Windows. And unlike other books aiming at the same market, answered all
the beginner's questions I had without leaving me more confused than
when I started.
Although Linux is making big strides behind the
scenes, from tiny devices all the way up to giant mainframes, it's
still not quite there for the millions of users with Windows on their
desktops. It is a contender, but only if you have the right hardware,
are prepared to limit your software choices and are willing to put time
and effort into learning to make it work.