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The Open Office

You probably already use Linux more than you realize. Every time you run a search at Google or place a bid at eBay, for example, you’re tapping into databases spread across thousands of Linux servers. In 13 years, the software has come a long way from the dorm room in Finland where Linus Torvalds, then an undergraduate at the University of Helsinki, built on ideas borrowed from AT&T’s Unix operating system – and on the work of the GNU open-source project – to create something faster and more streamlined than either Unix or Windows. Torvalds invited other programmers to copy, use, and improve his offering, as long as they agreed to share any changes they might make, and he has been the movement’s unofficial regent ever since, approving every new line of code.

But while Linux started out as a program written “for hackers by hackers,” in Torvalds’s words, that era is long past. Torvalds himself is now paid by an industry consortium, the Open Source Development Labs in Portland, OR, to oversee Linux’s evolution. And the typical open-source programmer, apparently, is no longer a passionate hobbyist but a full-time professional at a company that either publishes or uses open-source software. At IBM, for example, 7,500 programmers are making the company’s business software run on Linux, which many customers see as more reliable and less virus prone than Microsoft’s products. Former networking company Novell recently purchased Ximian, a startup founded to build desktop Linux components (see “The Linux Revolution, Part I,” p. 44). “The more we have embraced the market, the more vigorous our culture has gotten,” says Raymond. The result: improvements in Linux’s capabilities that have facilitated wide adoption by business.

But that, as my Wal-Mart box testifies, is just the beginning. After all, every one of the 187 million new PCs that will be purchased this year (at a cost of some $213 billion, according to research firm Gartner) needs an operating system and productivity software. Creating easy-to-use, point-and-click interfaces for Linux and open-source applications has become “the one goal that everybody wants to achieve,” says Andrew Morton, Linus Torvalds’s second-in-command at the Open Source Development Labs. And that goal is now close enough to convince many organizations that it’s time to switch.

OpenOffice is a core reason for the ascension of the Linux desktop. Based on initially proprietary software that was later made open source by Sun, it includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation builder, and an image editor and has become one of the most popular open-source alternatives to Microsoft’s productivity software. Companies such as Novell and Red Hat distribute it along with their own versions of Linux, and Sun sells an enhanced version called StarOffice. The key feature of OpenOffice is that it behaves pretty much the same way users of Windows software would expect – which means that any number of people could, in principle, become Windows defectors the next time they or their companies buy new computers or upgrade aging software.

Leaning toward Linux

Exactly how many of the people junking their old Windows machines will actually switch to Linux boxes? That depends on which group you’re talking about. First there are the casual home users: those who use their computers mainly to surf the Web and exchange e-mail and the occasional digital photo with friends and relatives. “They are going to look for the lowest-cost machine available to them,” says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software research at IDC. Several existing Linux-based programs, such as OpenOffice, “would be more than sufficient in that category,” he says.

Another group ripe for migration to the Linux desktop is corporate employees who use their office computers for just one or two tasks throughout the day. “Help desks, call centers, IT departments, receptionists, shipping and receiving – jobs where all somebody needs is a browser and Web-based e-mail – that one-third of your people could go to Linux today,” says Stuart Cohen, CEO of the Open Source Development Labs. And that’s a substantial one-third: U.S. call centers alone employ 2.9 million agents.

If lower software costs are attractive to corporate executives, they’re doubly so to government managers, another growing constituency for open-source desktop software. In cities as small as Largo, FL, and as large as São Paulo, Brazil, governments are saving millions by choosing Linux and free productivity programs over proprietary desktop software (see “Going Global,” p. 56). Other organizations and government agencies opt for Linux because they’d rather not hitch their futures to a single software company – especially a foreign company. In China, for instance, the State Council has instructed government ministries to buy Chinese-produced software the next time they upgrade their desktop systems, a mandate that is expected to be a big boost for Red Flag, China’s leading Linux distributor. In June, the city of Munich, Germany, affirmed its decision to switch 14,000 city-owned desktop PCs from Windows to versions of Linux supplied by IBM and Novell, even though Microsoft had offered discounts worth millions of dollars. “It’s not so much an anti-Microsoft feeling as it is not wanting to be dominated by an American company or by any one company,” believes Matt Asay, director of the Linux business office for Novell.

There’s one more big draw for Linux adopters: wider access to innovation, meaning software that Microsoft doesn’t sell or hasn’t gotten around to finishing. One open-source project called Dashboard, for instance, ties together disparate types of information desktop users juggle every day; it monitors whatever you’re doing on your computer and plumbs your e-mails, appointments, contact lists, and file folders for related items, automatically linking to them from a box that appears at the side of the screen. Microsoft developers have talked about including such features in the much anticipated successor to Windows XP, code-named Longhorn, but commercial delivery remains two or more years away. Says Louis Suárez-Potts, project coordinator and business manager in Berkeley, CA, for the OpenOffice project, “Open source is the ticket out of the banality Microsoft has imposed.”

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