The Quiet Revolution

Bill Gates must have quite a headache these days. As the government's antitrust suit against Microsoft promises to stretch out into the dog days of summer, the Seattle-based computer czar is simultaneously coming under new fire. As home PC buyers follow reports of Microsoft's not-so covert attempts to browbeat the competition (Intel Corp., Apple, Netscape, Intuit, Sun Microsystems, etc.), Microsoft has allegedly been busy trying to squash a market alternative most consumers weren't even aware existed.Widespread consensus has it that your average personal home computer buyer/user is divided into one of two neatly segregated camps: those who use Microsoft Windows operating system and those who use Macintosh. Generally speaking, this is true. Those of us who use PCs for word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, Web surfing and other relatively simple tasks are quite happy with -- and loyal toward -- our chosen method of use.But as in any community, there's a bustling underground system that offers PC users a choice, an underground that's rapidly gaining visibility, if not actual mass utilization.For those of you who remember personal computers before the pre-programmed age of Windows and iMac, Linux is a UNIX-styled platform designed to provide personal computers users with an efficient operating system that is notably faster, more reliable, flexible and powerful than Windows or any of its other commercial competitors. Currently it's available in versions for all major microprocessor platforms including Intel and PowerPC.And, unlike Windows and other commercially available systems, Linux is free. As part of the open-source/free software movement, Linux (pronounced LIH-nuks) is a freely distributable clone of the Unix operating system. You can download it from the Internet, get it from a friend or buy it as a cheap, value-added package. And, as part of the open-source community, source codes for Linux -- the techie language that makes it go -- are easy to access, tinker with and improve upon. If you're so inclined, and skilled, you can make changes to Linux and release your own public version without worrying about copyright infringement. Indeed, Linux may be the computing world's best-kept secret and, as it continues to gain visibility, it apparently has Bill Gates sweating buckets. In a recent "Dilbert" comic strip, a nervous Dilbert tried to protect his mother from certain death after her public conversion to the Linux system. Just an example of exaggerated comic paranoia, you say. Sure, but just how far will Microsoft go to keep you under lock and key? In light of the corporation's ongoing legal struggles, it just might surprise you. (Ironically, this essay is being composed in Microsoft Word. I pray that it makes it to you.)Last October, the now-mythological "Halloween Document" started making its rounds among the tech and hacker elite. As Gates publicly denied any knowledge of his company's attempt to monopolize the industry, a leaked internal company memo outlined Microsoft's plan to lay waste to Linux.Written by a Microsoft engineer, the memo maintained that Linux and other open-source software "pose a direct, short-term revenue and platform threat to Microsoft."Linux and other OSS advocates are making a progressively more credible argument that OSS software is at least as robust -- if not more -- than commercial alternatives," reads the memo. "Like other Open Source Software (OSS) products, the real key to Linux isn't the static version of the product but rather the process around it. This process lends credibility and an air of future-safeness to customer Linux investments."In other words, the Microsoft vs. Linux debate is not simply a question of compatibility, ease-of-use and price. It's a matter of choice. It's a matter of community.As Eric Raymond, co-author of "The New Hacker's Dictionary" and the man credited with convincing Netscape to join the OSS movement by releasing the source code for Netscape 5.0, commented on the memo in an exhaustively detailed response posted on his Web site (www.opensource.org/halloween1.html): "At a practical level, this insight means we can expect Microsoft's propaganda machine to be directed against the process and culture of open source, rather than specific competitors. Brace for it."Why should you, the average consumer, even care? You like your easy-to-use, compartmentalized point-and-click interface. Why would you want to use an operating system that's decidedly more elaborate even if it does offer more options? (Note: OpenLinux 2.2 does function via user-friendly icons and commands). How easy -- or probable -- is it for Linux to be absorbed into the mainstream culture?Salon magazine technology writer Andrew Leonard (www.salon.com) who has been faithfully documenting the Linux movement over the past year, makes a compelling case for the future of the little operating system that could. "No one should ever underestimate the cooperative power of passionate programmers working in the tradition of free software. First they gave us the Internet (which, like Linux, was once deemed too complex and geeky for the general public), and now they want to give us Linux -- if not today, then tomorrow."In fact, this is not so much a case of David and Goliath -- at least in the traditional sense. Although the open-source software movement has yet to match Microsoft's media blitzkrieg, it's substantially large substructure of programmers and users coupled with its growing alliance of users and media advocates renders it a mighty force.Consumers weary of Microsoft's fixed platform and market lockdown are slowly realizing that there are accessible alternatives. It's a quiet revolution -- you'll probably be hard-pressed to find someone on your block using Linux -- but one that's gaining steady ground. Last year, one PC manufacturer, VA Research, started shipping its computers pre-loaded with the Linux system. Not quite ready to cut the ties that bind? Linux can parallel to MS-DOS and Windows. By creating partitions on your hard disk (how-to info is available on the Web site) you can set up your computer with more than one operating system and make your own educated decision.So, where do you want to go today?

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