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IBM gets the nod from Linux, but problems exist

IBM's ThinkPad 600E is certified to run Red Hat's Linux, but users might want to think twice before wiping Windows off the hard drive.

An IBM notebook has been certified to run Red Hat's version of the Linux operating system, the first portable to win such approval, but users might want to think twice before wiping Windows off the hard drive.

IBM's ThinkPad 600E has passed certification tests for running version 6.0 of Red Hat Linux, but the software's vagaries prevent users from accessing the notebook's modem. Additionally, such features as the PC Card slots and power management suffer from compatibility problems.

Such shortcomings exemplify the difficulties Linux faces as the upstart operating system moves into mainstream markets. Though more and more hardware makers support Linux, it's difficult to write the software needed to use the seemingly endless list of network cards, video cards, CD-ROMs, and other computer components. Moreover, getting some of those components to work requires the Linux-expertise equivalent of rebuilding a car engine.

It can be awkward to install Linux on laptops because the small computers often use proprietary components to handle the display, sound, infrared port, modem, power management, and other essential hardware. Lists such as the Linux for Laptops site offer the collective wisdom of users who have gone through the process, but overall it's far from plug and play.

Indeed, it appears that the IBM notebook might be more appropriate for a lesser level of certification than what it actually earned from Red Hat. Being Red Hat certified indicates that "the tested hardware has passed all certification tests and requires no special action on the part of the user in order to set up the system." A lesser Red Hat compatible level indicates that the hardware has passed all certification tests, but requires extra attention such as "special drivers or updates...before the system is fully useable."

Linus Torvalds, founder and leader of the Linux movement, has called upon Linux programmers to make the open source operating system work better on mainstream machines such as laptops.

IBM doesn't sell systems with Linux at present, though it does offer advice on installing Linux, a spokeswoman said. "We continually watch the market to see if our customers are asking for that, so at some point, it could be a possibility," she said.

Dell Computer also has said it will put Linux on its laptops in coming months.

Dell plans to achieve Red Hat certification by November for its Inspiron line of laptops and will offer Linux preinstalled on machines some time after that, said spokesman Jon Weisblatt.

Dell has already started taking orders for its home-oriented Dimension line of desktop computers with Red Hat's Linux installed. The company plans to begin building and shipping the systems on September 23, said spokeswoman Maria Krinsky. Interested customers will be able to order the Linux Dimensions off the company's Web site starting tomorrow, she said.

However, modem compatibility proved a problem for Dell, too. The Linux Dimension systems don't come with modems, though people can install external modems on their own, she said. The Linux systems cost the same as the Windows models, she added.

The modem in the IBM machine needs special software called a "driver" that isn't available for Linux. "Although we are currently evaluating whether to provide Linux support for [the modem], IBM has not announced plans for supporting [it] under Linux," IBM said on its Web page.

In addition, only basic power management functions such putting the machine into and out of a sleep mode are available--and then only if a user is technically competent enough to rebuild the Linux kernel, the core of the software code. "The pre-built kernels included with Red Hat Linux 6.0 do not include the necessary advanced power management settings for the ThinkPad 600E," IBM said.

Full support for PC Cards also requires a kernel rebuild, IBM said.

The certification is given to hardware guaranteed to work with Red Hat Linux version 6.0. Certification allows a company to use Red Hat's logo in advertising the product, but companies must pay Red Hat for the certification.

Red Hat representatives were not immediately available for comment.

Currently only complete systems may be certified, but Red Hat is working on adding certification of individual components as well, the company has previously said.