San Mateo County Times

Once-obscure Linux shines at conference
Wednesday, March 03, 1999

By Liz Garone

SAN JOSE -- Two years ago, Lance Nishihira decided to use his dusty 486 computer as a doorstop because he couldn't get it to run any of the latest software.

Today, the computer does what it was originally intended to do: run numerous software programs at relatively fast speeds.

The computer's reincarnation is thanks to the Linux operating system, according to Nishihira, one of 8,000 people attending this week's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo at the San Jose Convention Center.

"I feel that Linux is an upcoming operating system that's going to give Windows NT a run for the money," said Nishihira, a Web developer for Lan Logic, an Internet service provider in Fremont.

Linux (pronounced lynn-ux) was developed in the early 1990s by a Finnish university student named Linus Torvalds. It can be downloaded for free on the Internet or bought on a CD-ROM for $30 to $50.

It runs a number of the same programs as Microsoft Windows but is considered by many programmers to be more stable, with fewer crashes and fewer compatibility problems. It also allows anyone -- who knows what they're doing -- to make adjustments.

"Imagine buying a car with a locked hood," said Mike Smith, a system engineer from Arizona. "That's what you get when you buy Microsoft. Linux is something else, something better."

Smith was flabbergasted at the list of exhibitors at the conference: Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, IBM, Corel. "Six months ago, forget it. You would have never seen names like that here."

It wasn't long ago that Linux was still considered an obscure, fringe program used almost exclusively by hardcore computer junkies. Times appear to be changing. Another LinuxWorld Expo is scheduled for August, and there are now about seven million users of the software worldwide, according to conference organizers.

"It's up there with the big boys, and the big boys are nervous," Torvalds said during his keynote speech Tuesday at LinuxWorld. Torvalds now lives in Santa Clara.

Linux's creator -- and namesake -- was given a standing ovation by the standing-room-only crowd. People began lining up at the doors an hour before his speech.

When the doors finally opened, people bounded in like rock star groupies, running for any open seats near the podium, many with digital cameras in tow.

"It's incredible. I feel like a child," said Istvan Bernath, who found a seat in the 15th row. Bernath is a network consultant for the university system in Denmark.

He said he was a Linux user from the very beginning and was able to convince the university's administrators to move the entire computer system from Windows NT to Linux five years ago.

"It hasn't crashed since," he said, smiling. "And you know, it would have been on my head, my job gone if it didn't work."

The software is constantly changing; the source code for it is available on the Internet, and programmers around the world are constantly making adjustments.

"That's the beauty of Linux," said Tom Eppenberger Jr., a system administrator from Fremont and recent Linux convert. "There are no constraints."

Deborah Butcher, a graphics designer from Los Angeles, was surprised to see how many applications can now be run with Linux, including Corel's WordPerfect.

Butcher's black nun's habit (she's a Dominican sister) seemed fitting at a conference where suits mingled with T-shirts, jeans and ponytails.

Butcher is a Windows user and said that crashing is the one constant -- and biggest frustration -- Windows brings her.

She went to the conference hoping to be sold on the Linux alternative. By the end of the first day, she was, she said.

"Linux appears to be it," Butcher said. "If enough of my applications get into the act, then I will, too."

An anti-Microsoft sentiment appeared to be the flavor of the day Tuesday.

One of the conference's largest lines was at the Linux Magazine booth, where vendors were giving away copies of the magazine and selling T-shirts for $15 with "Microscared" emblazoned across the front of them.

The conference continues through Thursday.

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