The Ubiquitous Penguin
Christopher C. Goodfellow
March 4 1999

"Bill Gates should shudder...there is always an alternative."

Not once but three times in the past week a topic has come up that is going to have lasting repercussions on your life.

No, not separation or y2k or a super virus. It is quite simply "the alternative" and if I think what's happening happens, Bill Gates should shudder...there is always an alternative.

It happened in Camelot, a Montreal software store, last week when I went in to pick up my monthly copy of Boardwatch. There they were front and centre. Stacks of them. Bigger stacks than any Microsoft stacks. Red Hat Stacks, Slack Stacks and others.

It happened last week in an email from my good friend John Mahoney at the Log Cabin Chronicles (go there after reading this!). He was moaning about crashed systems a while back and his email indicated he was going for a test drive.

It happened yesterday, when I read a press release from Corel that they were going to develop an "easy" visual interface for it.

That's three times. You have to sense something happening here.

Spring has sprung and what I'm referring to is Linux.

Linux is the alternative. For those of you still in the dark, Linux is an operating system for personal computers. Quite simply put it is an alternative to Windows and NT. In other words, Mr. Gates you got some competition and the worst of your nightmares is about to come true...people can get it for free!

Now while we all know who Bill Gates is and some might know who Andy Grove (Intel) is, who the devil is Linus Torvalds? What's the GNU project and does Tim Berners Lee come to mind? Behind this enormous transformation that is taking place in communications in the last decade of the 20th century, there are many unsung heroes that have toiled away in their nerdlike ways to bring you a tool - the internet - that will change your life. They haven't done it for money; they have done it for the most part because they wished to be part of something and they all know that are contributing to profound changes in how human civilization will think and interact in the coming years.

Now before I get to Linus and Linux, let me just tell you about Tim Berners Lee. He is the acknowledged father of the web...not the internet but the web. It was his idea to go graphic and hyperlink. If you don't know about the w3 consortium that basically governs standards on the web and how people get together to agree on all this stuff take a look at www.w3.org . You will soon realize many of the books you have purchased and spent hard earned money on with commercial publishers got all their contents right there for free! Everything from html standards to the kitchen sink is all there for the taking.

Any little foray into the arcane world of free software should start at the GNU. The GNU Project. I won't say anything else except to say this is where it all started and your mind will be bent over backwards when you realize that hundreds of thousands if not millions of software engineers across the globe all collaborate to bring you things like free Java virtual engines instead of buying Sun's licence. Bill should shudder again as how the devil can you compete with guys who just for the joy of doing are doing? You can't and the good guys always win!

Now back to the Penguin. Linus Torvalds got bored. In the early 1990's he decided that there had to be a better, more stable operating system than windows for personal computers. He was a hacker at heart who really didn't care about graphical interfaces - they just slowed things down a lot - and he wanted a platform to run programs on that was fast and stable. The great, newly-introduced-to-computing, masses have no idea of life before 32 megs of Ram and 5 gig hard drives. We wrote machine code to run on 4, 8 or 16K of Ram and most of the time without hard drives. We strove for something called "elegance". Elegance was achieved when you wrote a machine language program that accomplished what you set out to do with as few instructions as possible as processors were simply not powerful.

Today no one cares about elegance. Programs are written with millions of lines of code without so much as a thought. The higher speed processors will handle it all and ever increasing ram will allow the whole thing to be juggled. It works most of the time but hey you know when windows freezes it has hit the wall.

Memory registers are full, please reboot!

Linux can perhaps be best described as a PC version of Unix. Unix is what a lot of mainframes run on. Linux is a true multitasking program with many of the features of unix. It is also a return to elegance because what linux is all about is "open code". Open code means that the program itself is there for anyone to tinker with and make better and therein lies the genius of Linus Torvalds who understood that thousands of enthusiasts around the world could and would collaborate in developing a better operating system and it would be a work in progress - a continually evolving operating system.

And people are finally discovering it outside the original enthusiasts. They are coming in droves, week by week, to learn about it and install it. Because the program is more elegant than windows and makes much more efficient use of memory and processors, it can be installed on 486 machines and they will run remarkably well as full mutitasking servers.

And it's free.

Linux is now evolving quickly. Application programs from browsers to communications programs to word processors and spreadsheets are all there for anyone to use free of charge. They have all been developed by a well meaning volunteer horde. There are unsophisticated graphical interfaces with some of these applications now as well and it was interesting to see Corel pick up the ball this week and recognize that something is happening. It is perhaps the start of commercialization of linux but as long as the source code remains open - and it will - there is room for all sorts of commercial development. Woe to Corel if they attempt to develop a closed code interface for sale; it won't fly with the linux crowd. In fact many are working on interfaces right now. For free.

So what does this all mean? Well, looking ahead Bill Gates has the largest installed base of operating systems in the world. But Chairman Mao once said "give me a generation"...and that is all that is required for linux. You see young computer enthusiasts are driving this movement. Kids love to tinker (thank God!) and I have encountered a whole new group of kids learning and playing with linux. They've discovered they can put up their own internet servers with all free software that really works and works better than a lot of commercial offerings. So it is written. The age of Microsoft is over. It is not the end of history. It is simply the end of dominance. It didn't take the US Supreme Court to break up Microsoft. It started with Linus and the legions of partners over the years.

Linux...penguins are going to be a lot more prolific.

Now here is where to go:


You will never be the same again.

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