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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Happy birthday Linux
T-shirts bearing the message:
Linux is not just software it's a lifestyle
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

By the time you were 10 what had you accomplished?

To give you something to compare yourself against consider Pu Yi who by that tender age had been the emperor of China for seven years.

And by the time he reached the end of his first decade Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been composing original works for four years and had been taken to many European capitals showing off his precocious musical talent.

But Linux could have them all beat, because many believe that the software, which turns 10 this weekend, could be well on the way to starting a revolution.

Finnish start

Linux was written by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds while studying at the University of Helsinki, and is a version of the Unix operating system created in 1969 by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie.

Click here to read your experiences of Linux.

Unix was, and is, popular because it's a powerful piece of software and was intended to be moved relatively easily from one make of computer to another. Many large computer companies such as IBM and Digital Equipment, have translated Unix to run on their machines.

Linux creator Linux Torvalds
Linus Torvalds: The man who started it all

"But," said Alan Cox, one of the guardians of the core, or kernel, of Linux, "most of the old Unix was tied to vendors hardware, and tended to be very expensive."

So Mr Torvalds created Linux to be a cheap, cheerful and compact version of Unix that really could run on lots of different pieces of hardware with very few changes.

Now it works on everything from handhelds such as the Compaq Ipaq right up to IBM mainframes and supercomputers. Programs written to run on one machine can easily to be moved to another.

"It's a very powerful, unifying force," said Mr Cox.

This portability is a huge benefit to organisations more used to the bewildering world of Microsoft Windows which comes in many incompatible versions that often struggle to swap documents in different formats let alone actual programs.

Humble start

Linux has developed from those early beginnings into a worldwide industry and movement. Now it is available in many different "distributions" that come with a bewildering array of utilities and programs that have turned it from an engineers tool into something much more useable.

Its emphasis on openness, collaborative development, stability and security have helped it grow in stature and stand in stark contrast to Microsoft's way of doing business.

William Henry Gates III - Microsoft chairman
Bill Gates: the nemesis of the open source movement
Linux is starting to find a place in many businesses who are tired of endless price hikes, upgrades, bug fixes and managing the many problems that Microsoft's software can bring.

"The initial purchase price is one advantage and the total cost of ownership is too," said Malcolm Yates from Suse Linux. "You won't get stung paying for an upgrade to fix problems."

This could turn out to be more of an advantage as Microsoft rolls out its XP and .Net strategy which turns software into a service you subscribe to rather than just pay for once.

The organisations turning to Linux also like the fact that there is a vast pool of software engineers out there tinkering with the software and ready to help solve any problems they encounter. It is on this after sales care that the Linux companies tend to compete.

Said Mr Cox: "The economics of software now is such that it is cheaper to give them the software but charge them for the support and services on top of it."

Big backers

Now large computer companies like IBM and Sun are putting resources into ensuring tools exist to let customers do what they want with Linux. Initiatives like KDE are working on ways to make Linux look more like Windows to ease the pain of migration.

Tux the Linux Penguin
Tux- the Linux mascot
Mr Cox believes that the 10-year-old software has already had a profound effect on the computer industry and has raised the level of security and reliability people come to expect from software.

The use of Linux is likely to spread because many universities use it to teach computer programming largely as the source code of it is readily available for them to play with. As those students get jobs, they will take that familiarity with them.

But the future is not all rosy. Andrew Parker, senior analyst at Forrester Research in Amsterdam, said Microsoft's .Net initiative might spell problems if it is widely adopted because there are few people working on an equivalent for Linux.

Recently organisations such as Ximian and the dotGNU project have announced that they are looking to convert some parts of .Net to work with Linux but that could tie them to Microsoft's pace of development rather than do it themselves.

Said Parker: "The biggest threat is if IBM only gets 30-40% of the market they have been privately targetting, they might well write it off as an experiment that did not pay off like OS/2." And who remembers that?

On Saturday, we'll be looking at the challenges of installing Linux on your PC

See also:

24 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Your verdict on 10 years of Linux
25 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Linux: An installer's tale
14 May 01 | Business
Nokia chooses Linux
16 Feb 00 | Business
Linux - Microsoft's new nightmare
14 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
To upgrade or not to upgrade
30 Apr 01 | dot life
Party like it's 999,999,999
14 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
US building mega computer
16 Aug 00 | Business
Linux goes Gnome
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