It is the once-obscure operating system that could.
Linux is on a roll, the beneficiary of a series of moves in recent months by some of the largest companies in the computer industry, feeding the perception that the freely distributed, Unix-like software could provide a serious alternative to the dominant Microsoft Windows franchise.
If successful, Linux poses a big threat to Microsoft's platform dominance. Linux is outside Microsoft's API control. Since the operating system is based on standard Internet protocols such as HTTP, TCP/IP, and other technologies defined and maintained by bodies outside Microsoft's purview, the software giant can't steer its future direction, or even be guaranteed of revenue from selling Linux applications.
An internal research paper, part of the so-called Halloween memos believed to have been intentionally leaked to the Net by Microsoft, shows that Microsoft's own engineering staff sees Linux as a serious, commercial-ready operating system.
According to a memo written by Microsoft engineer Vinod Valloppillil, Linux "represents a best-of-breed Unix that is trusted in mission-critical applications, and--due to its open source code--has a long-term credibility which exceeds many other competitive OSes."
In what the memo's author considers the "worst case" scenario for Microsoft, Linux will "provide a mechanism for server OEMs to provide integrated, task-specific products and completely bypass Microsoft revenues in this space."
Evidence of the momentum is everywhere. Estimates peg the installed base of machines running Linux software at anywhere from 7 million to 10 million users. One Linux-based company, Red Hat Software, recently garnered the financial support of both chip giant Intel and Netscape Communications. Corporate software developers such as Oracle, Sybase, and Informix also have pledged to offer their software on Linux.
That has been buttressed by efforts to create more wide-ranging support options for Linux, a weak spot for the operating system in the view of some.
And the Redmond, Washington-based software giant has noticed. In a recent annual filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Microsoft said it expects to have more competition in the market, due in part to the growth of Linux and the support it continues to receive from third-party applications developers. Linux is thought by some to be an attractive alternative to Microsoft's Windows NT Workstation and Server operating system, which has experienced significant sales growth in recent years.
Based on the recent publicity surrounding the Halloween Memo, it also seems Microsoft could learn a thing or two from the Linux distribution model.
Linux is a product of the 1990s, though its genesis came out of AT&T's Unix software efforts in the 1960s. Linux's roots as a Net-based software phenomenon date back to 1991, when Linus Torvalds--then a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland--decided to build an alternative to Windows and DOS.
Linux is an operating system that is based on a "kernel"--which allows the software to run--built by Torvalds. Other elements of the operating system date back to a free version of Unix developed in the 1980s.
Some analysts believe Linux can be a good fit in certain segments such as Web serving or as a platform for development, while others maintain a wary view of implementing a freely distributed operating system that has unorthodox avenues for support. But the "free" part is sure to win some converts.
"Information technology is driven by cost containment and Linux fits that bill," said Jean Bozman, analyst with market researcher International Data Corporation. "I think it's got traction, but it will be interesting to see how it develops. I think it will increasingly become a selected alternative for certain groups."
The threat the Linux operating system poses to the long shadow that Microsoft casts across the software market is created primarily by the two undeniable traits at the heart of Linux's momentum: It is largely free and it is completely open for people to tinker with.
"Linux servers are proliferating in business because they make a lot of sense. Cost is the major factor," Tracy Reed, a systems administrator and Linux devotee, said in an email message to CNET News.com. "The operating system and lots of good software is free, and commodity hardware is inexpensive.
"Flexibility is another reason," Reed added. "You don't have to worry about operating system licenses, registration keys, and other inconveniences."
A recent wave of positive press, pitting the software as a potential rival to Microsoft's dominance, hasn't hurt either. As Sun Microsystems chief Scott McNealy has noted in the past, once you include Microsoft or Bill Gates in a statement it immediately becomes newsworthy.
What separates Linux from other operating systems is that its source code--and all underlying APIs--are an open book, available to anyone with a Web browser and a willingness to download software across the Net. This has allowed users to take a version of Linux and add to it, customizing the software to fit a specific task. In the spirit of cooperation, those enhancements are then resubmitted to various ad hoc information sources on the Net so others can take advantage of the new tools.
Users of Linux always have the option of playing with the source code of the operating system so that it runs better in a particular setting. Alternatives from Microsoft and Apple Computer, for example, allow users to make only a limited number of changes.
That has turned what was once dismissed as a hacker-fed groundswell into a large opportunity for third parties, despite continued concerns about the operating system's role in corporations. Linux devotees believe ongoing efforts to agree on a standard base of code for the software will go a long way toward attracting third-party applications that will, in turn, attract more corporate users.
"The eventual acceptance of Linux [within corporations] will come with emerging technologies, the incremental benefits as features are added to the Linux kernel, and support from major enterprise application vendors in porting their software to Linux," noted a recent report by the Giga Information Group.
Though a Linux company has won awards for its efforts to help customers, Linux also continues to suffer from the perception that there is no support if the operating system falters. Some information technology professionals undoubtedly think twice when they find that Linux support is largely a product of newsgroups and Net-based email lists.
Conversely, proponents argue that it is just this method that allows bug fixes and security holes to be addressed in such a timely manner. Linux companies such as Red Hat and Caldera do offer a wide range of support for their Linux versions.
But Microsoft argues--perhaps rightly--that the operating system can't match Windows NT's level of corporate support. And without a central backer behind Linux, it's unlikely that level of support will be available for Linux users any time soon.
Where Microsoft could feel the Linux sting first is from a growing backlash in the software development community.
The company may have leaked internal memos in an effort to bolster its antitrust defense. So far, however, the memos have only contributed to a growing animosity toward the software giant.
In scores of newsgroup postings, developers complain that a plan spelled out in the memos to "de-commoditize" the open APIs beneath Linux means that the company will attempt to subvert open standards and the entire open source movement.
The memos may have also inadvertently given Linux boosters a battle plan.
As Subhas Roy, a software developer, said in a message to CNET News.com, "Linux can win as long as the Internet protocol APIs are open, IETF standard, royalty/license/NDA-free, and not in control of Microsoft."