The Linux Parade Marches On
The upstart OS moves from cult following to corporate darling
It was Microsoft Refund Day, and a crowd had gathered at a Denny's restaurant in Foster City at the southern edge of the Silicon Valley. Accompanied by music from the band Severe Tire Damage playing on a flatbed truck, the group crossed six lanes of traffic, returned the waves of friendly motorists, and paused for a photo session--before confronting a single spokesman at Microsoft's regional office. The protesters were objecting to having to pay for Windows--which is bundled on virtually all PCs--when they planned to run Linux instead. Referring to the fine print on the opening screen, they said they did not accept the conditions of use and expected their money back
"If Microsoft lives up to the terms of its license, fine -- if not, they look like schmucks," said Eric Raymond--author of the open source manifesto, The Cathedral and the Bazaar--to a reporter from Wired News. "And they could leave themselves open to a class-action lawsuit that could invalidate their shrink-wrap software licenses."
Whatever Microsoft was paying Rob Bennett, group product manager for Windows, it wasn't enough. The company's man on the spot said that refunds--if they are to be had--must be obtained by the hardware manufacturer. That didn't satisfy many. But really, this demonstration wasn't so much about money as it was about political theater. After all, Raymond himself wore a polyester wizard's robe decorated with penguins, the Linux insignia. For everyone too young to have enjoyed the days when the microcomputer business was itself in its youth, the Linux culture represents a second chance. To participate in the Linux movement is like going back to Berkeley in the '60s, a time when anything seemed possible, including the overthrow of large institutions. Linux is still a movement driven more by adrenaline and idealism than money, and in these cynical times that alone makes it worth watching.
But ironically, if Linux is to truly succeed, it needs help from the very corporations that some open source advocates disdain. And so, last March's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo was a watershed for the movement, a meeting place for long haired hackers and button-down executives. With more than 6,000 people attending, it was an event where Linux on the server side gained considerable momentum and respectability, and where the more quixotic mission of adapting Linux on the desktop at least made some progress.
Perhaps no story better exemplifies the meeting ground spirit of LinuxWorld than the Linux port to Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC chip. Officially, HP has embraced Linux, announcing it will optimize its HP Kayak PC workstation for the OS and was forming a new organization called Open Source Solutions Operation (OSSO) as a kind of ombudsman between its own traditional business and the open source community. The company promises it will continue supporting Linux when it migrates to Intel's IA-64 architecture.
But it wasn't always that way. Like other companies in the mainstream server business, Hewlett-Packard was leery of an operating system that grew not from corporate America, but from a loosely linked community of volunteer developers. But one day at the show, you could find Wayne Caccamo, an HP marketing strategist who focuses on selling high end systems to large businesses, talking with two Canadian programmers, Christopher Beard and Alex deVries. The meeting was the culmination of a Linux porting project that grew from a volunteer, unsanctioned effort to one that has HP's blessings.
Beard and deVries are part of an informal group of programmers who call themselves the Puffin Group, named for a penguin-like sea bird of the northern hemisphere. Last October, the Puffins decided to take on the challenge of porting Linux onto HP's PA-RISC chip--largely because it had never been done. Via the Internet, other developers joined the effort, including some HP engineers who volunteered their time.
Meanwhile, on his own time, Wayne Caccamo had gotten interested in the Linux culture. He began reading the diary of Alan Cox, a Welsh programmer whose diary is widely read online. And he began following Slashdot.
"It was great news for the Linux community," Christopher Beard told the Wall Street Journal. "Even without HP, we could have found out everything we needed to just by hacking the hardware bit by bit. But with HP helping us, a problem that could have taken a month to solve will take 30 seconds." HP paid for Beard and deVries to fly out for the conference. They returned the favor, after toasting the project with Evian water, by presenting Caccamo with a souvenir for the occasion: a puffin Beanie Baby.
HP wasn't alone among server companies in announcing Linux products and plans. IBM said it will ship Linux pre-installed on its Netfiniti line alongside Windows NT and OS/
Intel, which already invested in Red Hat, has made an investment in VA Research Linux Systems in order to port Linux to the 64-bit Merced chip. For its part, VA Research announced a Linux server family based on Intel Pentium 3 Xeon processors. The move by these companies represents a second crucial step in Linux's gaining respectability on server platforms. "Intel's endorsement of Red Hat meant Linux was okay to use," said Robert C. Young, Red Hat's chief executive, in a New York Times interview. "But anyone who bought it, still took on the liability for buying hardware not supported by Linux. Now IBM is stepping up and taking responsibility for the hardware component."
On the desktop--a tougher challenge
Linux on the server side takes advantage of Unix's head start against Windows NT Server. By comparison, Linux as a desktop OS alternative to Windows 98 is still a quixotic mission. In some ways, this is a classic chicken-and-egg problem that also confounds Apple. Linux cannot approach Windows' massive application library. But without that library, few mainstream users--even sympathetic ones--will move off the dominant desktop OS.
"Am I rooting for Linux? You bet," wrote Moira Gunn in an online column on the San Jose Mercury's SiliconValley.
One company running with Linux on the desktop is Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp., which bought 1,250 PCs Linux-configured from Dell Computer. Burlington was already shopping for a Unix-based system--so the move is not so much a victory for Linux over Windows, as Linux over Solaris or another commercial Unix release.
The company best known for driving Linux on the desktop is Corel, which purchased WordPerfect from Novell and now offers the Linux version as a free download. The company plans to release much of its office suite, including WordPerfect 9, the QuattroPro 9 spreadsheet and Corel Presentations 9 by the end of 1999, with CorelDRAW 9, Corel PHOTO-PAINT 9 and Corel VENTURA for Linux next year.
Corel will be joined by IBM, which is planning Linux versions of some of its best selling software on Linux, as are database makers Oracle, Sybase, and Informix. A Linux port of the Opera browser is underway. And in something of a breakthrough, Loki Entertainment Software is adapting Activision game Civilization for Linux, which a company spokesman called a superior platform. He predicted that the play would be far more responsive and that hard core gamers will pick up on it immediately. That may be pushing it: hard core games players are more interested in consoles and joysticks than in the nuances of operating systems.
Not surpisingly, Microsoft--whose Office Suite has become a worldwide standard--has said it has no development effort under way for a Linux version. (On April Fools Day, someone circulated a spoof press release over the Internet announcing a Microsoft version of Linux.) One could look for dark motives in this, as in the reluctance on Microsoft's part to boost a rival operating system, or you could buy a more benign explanation that there simply aren't enough Linux boxes to justify what would clearly be a substantial porting effort. After all, other software companies have also stayed away. Adobe, for example, has yet to do a Linux version of any product. Nor has Intuit produced a Linux version of its Quicken financial package. Both have applications running on the Mac.
Graphical user interfaces
One of the biggest obstacles to Linux's adoption on the desktop and direct competition with Windows is its lack of a standard graphical user interface. Among Unix-like operating systems, Linux is hardly alone in this. The very idea of replacing the Unix command line with a GUI is itself a culture clash. But in this icon and mouse-driven world, a GUI is not an option for any OS that aspires to the client.
There are two GUIs vying to be the de facto standard. GNOME, release 1.
The other GUI vying for a place in the Linux world is KDE (K Desktop Environment), a network-transparent desktop environment for UNIX environments, including Linux. It will be implemented by Corel for its Corel Desktop Linux distribution.
One way to solve the scarcity of client-side Linux applications is through Windows emulation. Since 1993, some 150 programmers have volunteered time developing Wine (as in Windows emulator). The project is overseen by Alexandre Juilliard who lives in the Swiss village of Chables , a region known for its vineyards. While Microsoft has not commented on the Wine effort, Paul Moritz, Microsoft group vice president, testified during the antitrust trial that Wine constitutes a "direct competition to Windows, and unless we respond to it, we run the risk of seeing our operating system become a commodity."
Juilliard has predicted that Wine will support most Windows programs by 2001. The catch is one common to all Windows emulation programs -- the Windows API is a moving target. It's tough for a group of unpaid hobbyists to keep up. And of course there's the problem with systems overhead. An emulator will inevitably slow down the works. The question for most Windows users will be why run an emulation package when you can run the real thing. Wine has gotten a big boost from Corel, which has thrown support for the emulator and believes that Wine is the key to achieving "a critical mass on the desktop."
Mac adds OS X to the Open Source movement
While Linux is catching fire as the Open Source's operating system of choice, another OS has also joined the movement. Apple Computer has put its OS X Server source code online, making it available from its website. While Apple is certainly a better known company than Red Hat, OS X Server is not a significant server operating system, lacking support for Intel and lacking the cachet of being developed almost from the ground up by the developer community. Moreover, OS X Server is not nearly as important to Apple's own plans as the desktop version of OS X, the successor to Mac OS 8.
An interview with Derek Burney, Executive Vice President, Engineering: Corel Corporation
Ottawa-based Corel Corporation is serous about Linux on the desktop. The company has ported its WordPerfect 8.
Overseeing Corel's Linux effort is Derek Burney, who began his career in software development at Atomic Energy of Canada, and worked at Bell Northern Research (now Nortel) before joining Corel in 1993.
- How viable is Linux as a desktop platform?
- It's pretty viable right now, but it's restricted to enthusiasts because there are a lot of usability issues that still remain to be solved: like network browsing, connectivity to Windows networking, CD-ROM browsing, and auto hardware detection.
- Do you really expect companies to exchange the security of Windows for Linux?
- We wouldn't expect a corporation with 100 seats to switch all seats over to Linux overnight. But it might make sense for a subgroup of 10 people to switch--using Wine for Windows operations, while trying some Linux applications out, like our WordPerfect Suite. By showing the interoperability between the applications and the OSes, we can show that there is no price to be paid for that experiment. And because Linux is free, there literally is no price to pay.
- How have you gone about porting your applications?
- We chose to put our resources behind Wine as a multi-purpose porting layer. That way other ISPs can take advantage of our work as well. And because Wine also operates in the emulation capacity, our customers can bring any Windows application over to Linux.
- Do you think other ISPs really will leverage Wine?
- Perhaps not immediately. But if they see that many of their customers are running the Windows version of the application on Linux, they'll realize there's an opportunity to create a native version of their application. Wine, in this case, proves the concept without an ISP having to spend any resources.
- Then they can take either create the application directly for Linux, or link to Wine's libraries to create a native application from a Windows code base. That's what we're doing--linking Wine libraries into our applications, then compiling them natively on Linux. Wine maps an application written to the Win32 API onto a different set of libraries that run on Linux. That gives us the opportunity of writing Linux-specific code because at that point we are coding and compiling on Linux.
- The other way that Wine is available is as a Windows emulator. Because of the way it works, you don't pay any performance penalty.
- There has to be some performance penalty.
- It's actually very minor because Linux runs faster than Windows. A traditional emulator acts almost as a translator between two operating systems, so there is a performance penalty to be paid. Wine operates a bit differently. When the program is loading, Wine replaces the library components that would have run and puts itself in there instead. Wine acts as a redirector rather than something that sits on top, so there isn't really any extra step that has to take place when it's running. That's what is nifty about it, and also why Wine tends to work as a compiling environment as well.
- How much time does Wine save in porting applications?
- Our current Linux version of WordPerfect was a brute force port, and it took almost a year to do. By contrast, for WordPerfect 9, Wine is saving us about 10 months. We should be able to do any application in about two or three months using Wine at the base, and that's just the first time. Subsequent versions should take a matter of days because most of the work is in developing one-time code that makes it easier to go back and forth between Windows and Linux.
- What about compatibility problems?
- That's what's really cool. We demoed [demonstrated] Quattro Pro at LinuxWorld running on Wine on Linux, bringing in a Windows Excel file--just to show not only that Quattro is compatible with Excel, but that we can cross between Windows and Linux with no problems.
- Will Windows 2000 be a problem in terms of porting?
- It will be fairly easy because Windows 2000 is, in theory anyway, backwards compatible. So to the extent that it is, Wine will continue to run. Anything new that's added to Windows 2000 will have to be added into Wine as well, but then the chances that many people will have applications that were designed only for Windows 2000 would be pretty remote. And by the time that those exist, Wine will have caught up.
- Will Corel Desktop Linux be in direct competition with Red Hat?
- In some sense you can argue that it would be because it is a Linux distribution. But the reality is we don't think Red Hat or Caldera is going after the consumer market--they are concentrating on the server side. We're trying to expand the market, not trying to eat into anything that's already there. We've already been in discussions with several of the distributions. They recognize that Corel's strengths are in the UI [user interface] and that's what's lacking on the desktop environment.
- Will two competing GUIs going to fragment the market?
- I don't think so. I think people are pretty sensitive to that potential. That's almost what happened with HTML because of Microsoft, it almost happened with Java, and it did happen with Unix. Even the developers who are working on GNOME and KDE are working together to make sure that the clipboard standard and other features are compatible. That's key. Ultimately, the two may join forces, and there's signs of that taking place as we speak. So even though we are putting our weight behind KDE, it's not to the exclusion of GNOME--it's just that KDE is further ahead. If something else changes, we'll swap around as well. But the important thing is that the work we're doing is going to be compatible with all the distributions. We're not trying to fragment - we're trying to stitch together.
- But if you develop to KDE aren't you excluding Gnome?
- Yes in the sense that we're not expanding what's offered with Gnome. But we aren't going to do anything that would make it prohibitive for our customers to work with GNOME. In other words, our distribution will likely come with either Word Perfect or Draw or something like that, and those applications will run on any distribution with any desktop environment.
- To the naked eye, neither GUI has the polish of Windows. Will that be a drawback in terms of acceptance? Will GNOME catch up?
- Yes and yes. We do think it's a drawback and that's exactly why we're doing what we're doing. We're adding the polish that's missing.
- Do you have plans for the Japanese market?
- We see huge opportunities there. We see what's happening with Linux to be a worldwide phenomenon. Also the OEM deal that we've just announced with PC Chips will bring us into the rest of the world quite handily. They are set to release about 18 million motherboards this year, and we just inked a deal with them to bundle Word Perfect 8.
- So that will give you a presence in Asia?
- Yes. About 60 percent of their sales are outside North America. I'm not sure what percentage is in Japan, but I'm sure it's quite high.
- Do you have any plans to do localization for Japan?
- There's nothing on the schedule at the moment but there's absolutely all indications that we will be doing it, yes.
- So given all your efforts, where do you see desktop Linux down the road?
- It's easy to see that six to nine months from now, there will be two competing desktop platforms--one that has Windows and all their applications, and another that has Linux and Wine and all the same applications on it. And that platform will be about $150 to $200 cheaper. That's what we're trying to show the world.