Growing Pains for Linux, Open Source Standard-Bearer


Pioneered by idealistic programmers as a grass-roots alternative to corporate control of software, the open-source Linux operating system is grappling with the growing pains of adolescence.

The LinuxWorld conference, a twice-yearly event launched in 1999, has evolved into a glitzy trade show graced by executives from such tech giants as Sun Microsystems, Oracle and IBM.

Even Microsoft, the nemesis of open-source software advocates, has a booth at the show, which ends Thursday.

"The first show was totally geeks," said Brooke Selby, a spokeswoman for the conference sponsor, IDG World Expo. "Then for a few years it was geeks and suits. Now it's more suits than geeks."

That worries Linux enthusiasts like David Reid, an 18-year-old hacker from Elk Grove who fondly recalls the first LinuxWorld as a communal gathering of nerds, academics and socialists. Clad in jeans and a "chicks dig hackers" T-shirt, he felt outnumbered this week by starched-shirt salespeople and marketing managers.

The change is a testament to the growing popularity of Linux, a free competitor of Microsoft's Windows operating systems and the open-source movement's standard-bearer.

Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds wrote the original basic instruction set, or kernel, of Linux's programming code in 1991 and invited the world's programmers to improve it. Open-source software is based on the notion that anyone using the application should be able to scrutinize the source code to spot bugs and suggest changes.

In 1992, about 1,000 people worldwide were using Linux. A decade later, 20 million people use it, mainly on large corporate networks, research firm A.D.H. Brown Associates estimates.

Though Linux is not yet practical for the vast majority of personal computer users, its appeal is growing--mainly because it's cheap and reliable Linux-based desktop computers are now sold online at Wal-Mart for $299.

Many Linux programs can be downloaded over the Internet for free, and companies such as IBM and Red Hat are bundling open-source software and teaching businesses how to install them _ at a fraction of the price of proprietary software.

By contrast, corporations jealously guard the source codes of Windows and other proprietary software, prizing it as the key to huge profits.

NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory now uses Linux and government agencies from France to China to the developing world are increasingly attracted to the software.

Some major corporations, including 7-Eleven, Deutsche Telekom and Amazon.com, are migrating to Linux servers to take advantage of low-cost, open-source versions of data management software such as MySQL.

Others use Linux-based systems to publish Web sites, store documents, manage e-mail and build firewalls around mission-critical computer operations.

"A couple of years ago, people were talking about Linux like a free puppy--cute and cuddly but it requires massive investments in time and training," said Bill Claybrook, research director for open-source computing at Boston-based research firm Aberdeen Group. "That's totally untrue today. It's progressed so far from that that it's now considered an enterprise application."

Oracle is working on file-storage software that runs on Linux and Cisco is working on Linux-based storage networking software.

Even Sun Microsystems, which makes its own proprietary operating system, has embraced Linux. CEO Scott McNealy announced this week that Sun would debut a low-end Linux-based server at $2,796. The Windows-based equivalent would cost nearly twice as much.

IBM, which provides consulting services to companies interested in Linux, has more than 4,600 Linux projects with corporate clients. IBM says it has saved more than $10 million a year by moving its internal e-mail system to Linux servers.

But as Linux grows up, enthusiasts worry that the corporations putting on giant displays at Linux World will break with the spirit of the open-source movement.

Linux supporters fear these companies will mine the source code for profit-making opportunities but refrain from suggesting improvements for the benefit of all users. Or, worse, that they'll co-opt the software and create proprietary or nonstandard versions--a practice maligned as "forking the code."

The only thing that discourages fragmentation is the Linux Standard Base, a sort of coding consensus that all implementers of the system are asked to follow.

Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's executive vice president of software, vowed that his company would honor those standards--more than 400 full-time Sun programmers are working on Linux projects. But he worried that other software makers might not.

"The danger is if Red Hat wants one version of Linux, Dell wants one, Oracle wants another," said Schwartz. "Volume could win out."

But many Linux supporters predict their collaborative ethic will survive simply because using Linux is a joy, compared to the corporate-controlled alternatives. By contrast, Windows comes bundled with Microsoft programs that work best with other Microsoft programs and cannot easily be replaced.

"Linux won't change because the people using it really love it," said 18-year-old Zack Morris of San Jose, who will study computer engineering at University of California at Davis in the fall.

Morris vows never to install a Microsoft program on his computer.

"Using Windows is like driving an automatic car," Morris said. "The car moves, but it's not nearly as much fun as a manual. Linux is like the stick-shift. Once you drive a stick-shift, you never go back."

Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.