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    The 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

    Would you trust your 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.

    Long a staple of university computer science departments and sometimes shady local computer bulletin boards, so-called freeware is now making its presence felt on high-powered corporate networks.

    There's 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.

    In 1984, ace programmer Richard Stallman quit his professorship at MIT to found the Free Software Foundation to protest the increasing commercialization of Unix. The result of his efforts has been a series of GNU (perhaps standing for 'Gnu's Not Unix') software development tools--free programs to help develop other free programs.

    But the most important 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.

    Andreesen eventually 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, available free.

    Another free program, the Linux operating system, has been quietly moving from hobbyists 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.

    With this influx of 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?

    Some 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 register their otherwise-free copies of the Netscape Internet browser, entitling them to support from the company.

    But free 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 instruction video, for $32. Can this package appeal to the corporate mindset more than $200-to-$500 packages such as Netmanage's Internet Chameleon?

    Last year, well-known 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.

    Despite these (often 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.

    After all, the price is right, isn't it?

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan