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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 February, 2004, 11:29 GMT
Linux steps into the limelight
Linux has long been the darling of highly-skilled programmers. But now, the program is going mainstream, reports technology correspondent Clark Boyd.

Linux net cafe in Brazil
Some internet cafes in Brazil rely on Linux
Major global computer companies are now embracing Linux. IBM, for one, is currently running a series of television and online ads proclaiming that the future is open, as in open source computing.

They have even enlisted author Kurt Vonnegut to help promote the open source ideal of sharing your computer code with others.

It is a far cry from the days when the only people who knew about Linux were a small community of zealous enthusiasts.

The interest from big companies is helping Linux programmers get the recognition they deserve.

"It's helping us get more appreciation from the rest of the world," said open source guru Bruce Perens.

"We are no longer isolated geeks making a system only we know is good. And I think there's a lot of benefit."

Modify and share

The Linux operating system was created more than a decade ago by Linus Torvalds, then just a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

Since then, the program has been further refined by programmers worldwide.

Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds: The man who created Linux
The code of Linux is open source, meaning anyone can look at it and modify it, as long as they agree to share their changes with everyone else.

Large companies have been benefiting from Linux for years now. They use it to run large servers and networks.

The number one issue for many of these companies is money. Linux can be a low-cost alternative to other, proprietary operating systems like Microsoft Windows.

Because Linux is open source, it can be obtained for free, although most companies pay software developers for a package of Linux-based applications, including e-mail and word processing.

They also pay for customer support. But usually not near as much as they would pay to a proprietary vendor.

That is encouraging software developers around the world to make Linux-based products.

"I think the market is looking for an alternative to Microsoft," said Dan Wensley, from Net Integration Technologies in Ontario, Canada.

"Just being an alternative to Microsoft in a lot of markets globally will give you an opportunity.

"Today, business has adopted Linux as an alternative, and as a viable, sometimes better, sometimes as-good-as solution and we've seen it over last five to six years, develop into a real market and real opportunity and real saleable item," he said.

Saving money

Linux is also proving popular in the public sector. Governments like the idea of not paying a proprietary vendor huge licensing fees for years and years.

If you spend a dollar with a local company working on Linux, that dollar stays in your economy
Simon Phipps, Sun Microsystems
They also like the fact that open source software allows them to modify the code themselves.

"What we see happening in Europe is that governments are picking it up," said Marcel Hartog of Computer Associates.

"If you talk to governments, they're actually thinking - why don't we write open source software as well.

"So it's not just cost-based, but also the concept of open source software. They just like the idea of saving the people money, but also giving back to the people what they created."

The German city of Munich, for one, recently decided to move from Windows to Linux. Israel and Brazil have also begun initiatives to increase their use of open-source solutions.

Microsoft rival, Sun Microsystems, is currently working with the Chinese Government on open-source software development.

China wants to use Linux to create its own, home-grown software industry.

"If you spend a dollar with a local company working on Linux, that dollar stays in your economy," said Simon Phipps of Sun Microsystems.

"When you spend a dollar with a multi-national corporation as a license fee for a piece of software, that dollar leaves your country."

"It's about keeping the money in your local economy, developing skills and developing the local economy to be strong in its own right in a global context."

And that is why some think open-source could be the way of the future, especially for developing countries.

Dimo Calovksi, who works on development issues at the United Nations, believes open source could tap into the developing world's natural strengths.

"In order to be a good information technology professional, to be a developer, programmer, system administrator, one has to have a problem-solving mentality," he said.

"This is something that a lot of people in developing countries have. It is a natural for them to make do with little, and to produce something of value out of nothing."

Commercial waters

The majority of the Linux community is excited about how their creation is being put to use, both in business and in government.

Some worry, though, that large corporations may be reluctant to share their Linux-based software with others. And that, say long-time Linux programmers, would violate the tenets of the open source philosophy.

But open source proponent Eric Raymond says that most Linux programmers are happy to spread the gospel.

"In the last five or six years, we've had a new generation of advocates come out and go public, who are really much more comfortable with collaborating with markets and collaborating with corporations," he said.

"Because hackers are bright people, and they've figured out that if you want to change the world, one of the things you have to do is co-opt the people who write the big cheques."

Those cheques may soon be getting bigger.

At this year's recent LinuxWorld Expo in New York, it was clear that corporations, governments and programmers are united by one goal - getting Linux onto as many personal computers around the globe as possible.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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