Anybody walking by the Linux pavilion at Comdex last week couldn't fail to notice a lot of smiling faces: the booths of Linux vendors such as Red Hat Software and Caldera Systems were swamped with attendees eager to get information about the open-source software products on display.
And debates about the commercial viability of Linux were fuelled by Microsoft's recent so-called Halloween documents -- in which the software giant mused about the short-term threat Linux may pose to its Windows NT platform.
"Linux has been developed by really good and bright people," said Barry Gilstrap, president of BEC, an ISP in Kansas whose servers run on Linux.
Its development by programmers in their spare time, without commercial pressures, has made Linux a better operating system than Windows or Unix, Gilstrap said, expressing an often-heard sentiment.
Many observers said that while Linux has a major cost advantage -- the basic code is free -- it still has a way to go to become a real threat to Windows. But given Linux's stability and reliability, vendors and users alike predict that it has a bright future.
About 8 million to 9 million people use Linux today, estimates Jon Hall, executive director of Linux International, an Amherst, New Hampshire-based organisation that is promoting Linux.
Moreover, 50 per cent of those now implementing Linux are new users of the system, said Ransom Love, president and CEO of Caldera Systems. Resellers and systems integrators are the biggest customers, Love said.
"Linux is very robust," said Christian Wissmann, international marketing director for Quadratec, an Orsay, France-based software development firm specialising in data backup and storage. "It's not as sophisticated as other OSes, but it's very visible and predictable. That means when I have a problem, I know I can fix it."
Linux's open-software status, which allows anybody to contribute ideas and features to the operating system, makes it a strong contender to run corporate servers, said Donnie Barnes, MIS director for Red Hat, based in Utah.
"That is why Linux is such a strong alternative in the commercial market," Barnes said. "If you need a feature that the OS doesn't have, you can add it yourself. You can't do that with Windows."
But while Linux has found a place in the server arena, without a critical mass of applications, penetration of the desktop market is a way off. Corel is starting to port all of its major products -- including WordPerfect and CorelDraw -- to Linux, and it expects to roll out the applications in the third quarter of 1999, said Ron McNab, vice president at Corel.
"We are a citizen of Linux," McNab said. "Linux is an excellent alternative to NT or any other operating system. It's far superior to NT because it's more robust and sophisticated and predictable, and it scales beautifully. Linux hardly ever breaks. And if it does, you can solve the problem."
The recent buzz around Linux has applications developers flocking to Red Hat and Caldera asking for help with developing a strategy for Linux, company officials said.
Linux has caught on with the anything-but-Microsoft crowd. "There are people who don't want to be subservient to the company that is supposed to be serving them," said Daniel Kuznetsky, program director of operating environments and server software at IDC. He was referring to the feeling among some users that they are forced into a never-ending, expensive upgrade cycle with Windows products.
Microsoft's business model doesn't fit with most companies' business models, Kuznetsky said. Most companies want to save as much money as possible and preserve their hardware and software investments over the long term, while Microsoft takes the opposite approach, issuing regular upgrades.
Still, Linux hasn't reached critical mass in the mainstream corporate market, Kuznetsky said. In addition, when companies do use Linux, it isn't usually as a stand-alone environment, he said. Instead, Linux typically works on servers alongside Windows or Unix machines.
Another issue muddying the waters for Linux is how application developers and Linux operating system vendors will make money in the long run, Kuznetsky said. For example, if Oracle ports its Oracle8i database to Linux, can it charge the same price it charges for NT and Unix versions?
Microsoft takes a business-as-usual attitude toward the rise of the free operating system, considering the interest in Linux no different from that in other Windows competitors, said Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla.
According to Pilla, Microsoft doesn't plan to take any particular track to fend off Linux; it will simply continue to build more features into Windows to keep it competitive.