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The little engine that could:<br> What Linux offers that Windows can't
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

The little engine that could:
What Linux offers that Windows can't

Technofile for May 23, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

The unthinkable is starting to happen in the computer world. A PC operating system created by unpaid programmers is catching on as an alternative to Microsoft Windows.

The operating system is Linux, created in 1991 by Finnish college student Linus Torvalds and fellow programmers on the Internet. Linux has had a cult following worldwide for eight years, but it didn't catch on with the public because it was hard to set up and difficult to use.

But the rough edges in Linux have been smoothed over, and the latest versions are much easier to install and use. You can even get a plug-and-play version of Linux that installs on a Windows PC and gives you a choice at each bootup of Windows or Linux.

That any operating system could emerge as a challenger to Windows is amazing enough. Nearly every new PC comes with Microsoft Windows, and most new programs are written just for Windows PCs. All previous competitors to Windows even the OS/2 operating system from industry giant IBM -- have fallen into obscurity over the last decade.

But this time might be different. Linux has many technical advantages over Windows, but its main advantage might be simply that no one owns it. Because Torvalds wanted to share his program with the world, he and others who work on Linux have been giving the operating system away. Most of the thousands of software programs that take advantage of Linux are free, too.

This puts Microsoft at a big disadvantage. It can't absorb the "Linux Corp." because there is no such thing, and it can't buy the rights to Linux because Linux is not for sale.

At present, even with an estimated seven to 20 million users worldwide, Linux is not a threat to Microsoft in the area marketing experts call "the desktop" PCs that are used in homes and small offices. But it is already outselling Windows NT, Microsoft's server version of Windows, in some parts of the world, and is used to run about a third of all the server computers on the Internet. (Microsoft's Windows NT is far behind.) At present, Linux is mostly a replacement operating system and has to be installed by users, but it's also available preinstalled on PCs from Dell and other manufacturers.

One new version of Linux, from Caldera (, installs itself the same way Windows does, using plug-and-play methods. With Caldera's Linux, you can even install both Linux and Windows on the same computer and choose one or the other each time you boot up.

Versions of Linux aimed at consumers have graphical user interfaces GUIs that resemble the look of Windows and the Mac. The most popular interface is the K Desktop Environment, or KDE. It's surprisingly modern and flexible, taking on the best features of Windows and Macs and adding many of its own.

Linux differs from Windows 95 and 98 in many ways. Here are five important differences:

    • Linux is much more stable. Even if a program running on a Linux PC crashes, all other programs running on the computer usually keep going as if nothing happened. This makes Linux ideal as a server (a computer that sends files to other computers on a network or the Internet).
    • Installing software does not mess up vital system files in Linux the way it often does in Windows.
    • Linux handles memory very well. Windows can run out of memory even if the PC has hundreds of megabytes of RAM because Microsoft never fixed an old problem with the way Windows works. And Linux needs only one-third to one-half the memory Windows requires.
    • There is no DOS or Windows code in Linux. It was created from scratch to match the capabilities of modern PCs and has no relationship with any of Microsoft's programs. As a result, Linux runs faster than Windows, with less operating-system overhead.
    • Linux programs are much different from Windows programs, so Linux PCs cannot run Windows programs and vice versa. (Windows emulators are being worked on for Linux, but they're still buggy and slow.) This is a big disadvantage to Linux.

Linux backers point out that Linux is the first non-DOS and non-Microsoft operating system for PCs since the early 1980s. As such, Linux offers a fascinating look at how PCs can work without the burden of Microsoft's buggy code. PC users and PC bashers alike may have made the wrong assumptions that problems with PCs come from the way the hardware is designed. Linux is showing us that ordinary PCs can work extremely well if they have the right operating system.

Next month Al Fasoldt will report in depth on Linux as a replacement for Windows on a home PC.


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