Linux, the computer operating system developed in the 1990s by a college student in Finland, is unlikely to dethrone Microsoft’s Windows as the ubiquitous operating system on desktop PCs anytime soon. But Wharton faculty and a Linux supporter say that Linux will gradually become more attractive to consumers as more applications are developed for it.


The real growth of Linux, though, is expected to take place elsewhere, these people say. Linux will continue to strengthen its position in its chief market – as an operating system for servers – as it is embraced by an increasing number of companies and government agencies who like Linux’s features and low cost.


In the consumer market even the Linux aficionados who make up the so-called open-source software community say that Linux faces at least three big hurdles: Most PC users know almost nothing about Linux; Linux devotees do not make much effort to market the system; and Windows is still easier to use.


“Microsoft is well entrenched [in the desktop market],” says Chuck Murcko, a programmer and member of the Apache Software Foundation, an organization that provides support for open-source software projects. “The track record of Apple Computer shows us that a technical solution that’s better is not enough to dethrone Windows from the desktop. You may get a fanatic cadre using it, but it’s simply not enough. I haven’t seen the compelling reason yet for people to change from using Windows to using anything else because the state of the art really hasn’t given us a user interface paradigm that’s so much better than Windows that people just flock to it.”


Murcko adds that consumers “don’t know a whole lot about Linux, just the way the whole Internet world was unknown until the mid 1990s, even though we had been using it decades longer than that. Open-source doesn’t do a lot of public relations for itself. I may be as close to a marketer as you’ll find. We have an aversion to marketing ourselves. As a community, we feel if the product is good enough it will stand on its own and the market will hear about it eventually.”


Wharton management professor Gerald R. Faulhaber says ease of use is critical if Linux is ever to mount a serious challenge to Windows on the desktop. “Linux people have to make it easy to go from Windows to Linux, just like Microsoft made it easy to go from DOS to Windows,” Faulhaber says. “You have to help people get used to a new operating system. You have to get people to leave Windows and go to Linux without great pain.”


Another key issue: making it possible for consumers to readily use existing Windows applications on the Linux system. “If I have Word and Excel documents, can I use them with Linux? If not, Linux will never replace Windows,” says Faulhaber. “Linux would remain the system for tecchies but it won’t be a mass-market product. The genius of [Microsoft Chairman] Bill Gates is that he understands that.”


Linux was developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki. Torvalds based his new Linux system on an already existing operating system called Unix, which was developed at Bell Labs in 1969. The name Linux is shorthand for Linus’s Unix. Some people, including Torvalds, pronounce the word lee’-nux; others prefer lyn’-nux.


Linux may still be a mystery to average folks who use their PCs for word processing and spreadsheets. But Linux is well known among the computer cognoscenti, including those responsible for overseeing servers, which are computers that provide data to other computers that are networked together.


Unlike the source code of the Windows operating system, which is proprietary, the Linux code is available to anyone. Any computer user can download Linux off the web for free if they feel technically competent enough to try it out. But a number of companies, such as The SCO Group (formerly Caldera), Red Hat and SuSE have made a business out of tweaking the basic Linux system with their own proprietary software to make Linux easier to install and use. Companies and developers can charge money for Linux as long as the source code remains freely available.


Linux proponents who want to see the system used more widely received a shot in the arm on Sept. 16 when IBM and Red Hat announced a multi-year alliance to market Linux. The two companies said they would join forces to provide Linux support to IBM enterprise customers around the world. Among other things, Red Hat agreed to deliver support for the Red Hat Linux Advanced Server on IBM’s zSeries, iSeries and pSeries of eServers.


Red Hat also said recently that its next version of Linux is to feature an easier interface to make the software friendlier to PC users at home and in schools. In addition, Sun Microsystems reportedly plans to offer customers package deals that include Linux, desktop and server hardware and application programs.


“IBM and Red Hat is a perfect alliance,” says Bruce Kogut, professor of international management and co-director of the Reginald H. Jones Center for Management Policy, Strategy and Organization at Wharton. “IBM has been one of the major supporters of the open-source community.”


“Linux has support from major players like IBM, who now ship Linux as the default operating system,” says Kendall Whitehouse, Wharton’s director of advanced technology development. “From a practical standpoint, Linux solves a real problem for IBM. IBM has a lot of different hardware, and one of the challenges historically in computing has been not having fragmented software across different hardware systems. Linux gives IBM one system to maintain across a broad range of hardware platforms.”         


According to a recent report by IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm, revenue spent on Linux declined by almost 5% in 2001, compared with 2000. But Linux fared better than most when compared to other platforms, with the exception of Microsoft’s Windows, which was the only operating environment to experience positive revenue growth in 2001, IDC said, adding that spending on Linux could increase from $80 million in 2001 to $280 million in 2006, a compound annual growth rate of 28%.


“Despite the unconventional way Linux is bought and sold, it has become a mainstream choice for many infrastructure workloads particularly because the software is available either freely on the network or as a low-cost packaged product that can be deployed on low-cost, high-volume systems,” according to IDC.


Much of Linux’s appeal arises from the passionate belief in the concept of open-source software on the part of computer programmers. Gerry McCartney, Wharton’s chief information officer, says a lot of the support for Linux “is a protest vote against Microsoft on the part of computer programmers, who believe system code should be available for free. It’s like a religion. There is a rich heritage of protest in the computer sciences field. Unix itself began as a protest against the large operating systems in existence years ago.”


In the corporate world of information technology, McCartney says, Linux has found a sympathetic audience. “In large organizations you have tech-savvy people who enjoy it,” he notes. “It’s sexy for them. These people don’t want a shrink-wrapped product like Windows. They want a product they can get their hands on and reconfigure.”


At Wharton itself, Linux is not in widespread use. A number of faculty members use it in their research. The main systems in use at Wharton are Windows XP and NT, Sun Microsystem’s Solaris and Hewlett-Packard’s HP/UX. Still, Wharton recognizes that Linux “is a force in the market, so we have to understand its possibilities,” McCartney says. “It’s being used by large vendors, so we have to take it seriously.”


Wharton’s Kogut, who has written extensively on Linux, says he believes that Linux will slowly make inroads into the PC market, but that Linux’s real impact will be in large organizations that use servers. “As for the consumer market, let’s see how many more applications they can run on Linux” before making a judgment about how widespread Linux use will be, Kogut says. “We’ll see more applications to run on Linux, and that’s what consumers want. But there’s something else going on that’s interesting. Some governments around the world are saying they’re tired of paying fees to Microsoft and are considering moving to Linux. I also think we’ll see Linux being used in areas we don’t normally think of, such as mobile telephones, smart cards and personal digital assistants, or PDAs.”


Murcko – the Apache Software Foundation member, who also has done work for IBM – says Linux may become more of a household name in the desktop market in two to five years. “It’s only a matter of time. Dell and Gateway two or three years ago started offering Linux as alternative installs. I suspect if you went to Dell or Gateway and asked for the percentage of people ordering Linux, it may be 1% or 2%. But the crack is there. It’s the hole in the dyke. It’s a matter of waiting for Linux to be easy to use on the desktop.”