Wal-Mart, Dell offers help breathe new life into Linux

PC system isn't just for 'geeks' anymore

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At the beginning of November, Wal-Mart gave shoppers a chance to get an early start on their holiday shopping by offering a $199 desktop computer, both in its stores and online at WalMart.com. As desktop machines go, the Everex TC2502 is not particularly powerful, with a 1.5-gigahertz processor, 512 megabytes of RAM, an 80-gigabyte hard drive and no monitor. But consumers judged it powerful enough -- in less than two weeks, the retailer was out of stock.

Given the price point, the sellout might have been predictable; what makes it remarkable is that the Everex PC does not come with any pre-installed software from Microsoft -- no Word, no Excel, no Internet Explorer, and most importantly, no Windows. Instead it runs on Linux, the open source operating system that has long been viewed as being too geeky for use by everyday people.

The sellout may not be a watershed event: Wal-Mart began the sale with only 10,000 units available in 600 stores (and the machines are in stock again). But the retailing giant's promotion is the second initiative from a major player to offer Linux-based PCs in 2007. In February, Dell conducted an online survey to find out what its customers wanted in future products, and 80,000 respondents said that they wanted the company to offer machines with Linux pre-installed. Dell, which had canceled a previous line of Linux-based PCs due to slow sales, began offering Linux machines again in May.

When the world's largest retailer and the second largest computer maker both offer Linux-based PCs, maybe Linux isn't just for geeks anymore.

That would be the latest in a long series of big changes for Linux, which was born in 1991 as a hobby project by Linus Torvalds, then a student at the University of Helsinki. Now the operating system runs everything from cell phones to supercomputers. But in all of its dramatic permutations, it has yet to gain a significant presence in the realm that is most familiar to most users, the desktop computer. There, Microsoft Windows has ruled, more as the default operating system than as the operating system of choice, because most users have not realized there was a choice.

Mike Semcheski was in high school when he first chose Linux in 1995, by purchasing a book about Linux that included a copy of the operating system on CDs. Getting Linux up and running on his computer "was daunting, but it also felt rewarding."

Now Mr. Semcheski is vice chairman of the Western Pennsylvania Linux Users Group, formed in September 1997. The group meets monthly on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, with a regular attendance between 25 and 30. About a third of the meetings are "installfests," in which people who want to explore Linux are invited to bring their computers and get help in installing Linux on them.

Mr. Semcheski, who writes computer software for the University of Pittsburgh's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, said that he sees a sees a transition taking place there. Now, using Linux puts him in the minority: "Eighty percent of our people are using Windows now."

But "for new people coming in, there's a lot more interest in Linux ... maybe 75 percent of the people coming either use Linux or have had exposure to it."

While Linux provides the same essential functions as Windows, the two operating systems differ in significant ways.

Linux is a variant of Unix, the operating system that powered computing in the 1970s. Back then, using a computer meant logging on to a terminal to gain access to a mainframe that would fill a good-sized room, and that was shared by multiple users. So while Windows was originally designed for stand alone PCs, and grew gradually into an operating system designed for networks, including the Internet, Linux was designed for networks from its beginning.

One result of being designed to accommodate multiple users is that Linux started off with stronger security protocols than Windows. The reputation of Linux among hardcore computer users began to grow, as reports began to circulate of Linux machines running months, or even years, without crashes or viruses.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Linux is free, in two senses of the term. As Linux users put it, the system is both "free as in beer" and "free as in speech."

"Free as in beer" means that no one ever needs to buy Linux. It can be downloaded for free from a wide variety of sites on the internet. There also are books about Linux that include installation CDs or DVDs, and magazines that do the same.

"Free as in speech" means that once someone have a copy of Linux, they can modify it any way they like to make it do what they want. More than that: they can distribute their modified version to others, as long as they also allow those new users to do their own modifications. Many people have decided to do that, with the result that there are many versions of Linux (called "distributions," or "distros" for short), ranging from highly specialized mini-distros that fit into 2 megabytes, to full-blown general-purpose versions that requre a gigabyte or more to install. The version of Linux on Wal-Mart's $199 computer is called gOS, and is a variant of the current leading distribution, Ubuntu (Dell's new line of Linux-based machines also use Ubuntu).

The two freedoms together can translate into dramatic cost savings. Kevin Squire, instructional technology coordinator for the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, said that when PVCS wanted a new email system, providers of hosted services quoted prices "anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000." Using Linux and other free software, "I did it for $3,000 ... with all the same feature sets."

Mr. Squire acknowledged that a nonmonetary cost comes with the free software approach.

"There is a hidden cost of learning," he said. "But you're going to have that cost anyway."

Indeed, the need and opportunity for learning is a very large part of what Mr. Squire, along with many others, likes about Linux. He started with PVCS as a math teacher in 2004, and worked his way into his current position by learning Linux in his spare time.

"I went from being a daytime teacher to being an evening 'fiddle-ist' to having this be my full-time job. I have a huge skillset and it's all due to the openness of Linux."

Part of that openness, he said, is being able to receive support from other Linux users that proves to be superior to support made available by commerical providers.

"I can very easily say that 90 to 95 percent of the time, I get a faster, more thorough response to the user groups that I have from any of the tech support groups we do use," Mr. Squire said.

Both Mr. Semcheski and Mr. Squire use Linux at home as well as at work, forgoing Windows-based software. For Mr. Semcheski, that means having two of his household's three computers running Linux (his wife uses a Mac), while Mr. Squire uses it on seven machines -- a home server, indivdual computers for himself, his wife and their three children, and a system dedicated to running Myth TV, a Linux-based video recorder. All but one of the Squire computers are "frankensteins," or machines assembled from spare parts over the years.

"You really needed a book" to use Linux back in 1995, Mr. Semcheski said. "I think it shows how far it's come that you can buy it (pre-installed) at Wal-Mart."


Elwin Green can be reached at egreen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1969. For more information on the Western Pennsylvania Linux Users Group, contact www.wplug.org


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