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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 environments.)

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 mainframes.

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 vehicles.

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 in.

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 $75).

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.

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