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by Bob Brooke

Corel LinuxA once-obscure variant of UNIX (a user interactive computer operating system) is winning the hearts and minds of a growing number of PC users. Despite its underdog appeal, Linux as a desktop operating system (OS) has been strictly for geeks--until now.

From its roots as Finnish student Linus Torvalds' pet project in 1991, Linux has evolved into a popular Windows alternative. International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that the number of Linux users could grow to 10 million by 2001. Still, on the overall OS radar screen, Linux is only a blip but an important one.

Linux is open source software that's software that can be used and changed by users to meet their needs under a General Public License for free software. Unlike Windows, which users must be licensed to use by Microsoft, the basic Linux program is available for free and unlicensed on the Internet. But downloading it is a time-consuming process not recommended for first-timers.

In a speech at a recent Linux Conference in New York, Torvalds said, "Linux actually tries to move software from being a witchcraft to being a science. What happened when computer science came to be was that people started openly discussing ideas and didn't have one company telling them what to do."

Why should computer users switch to Linux? In a word, stability. Unlike Windows, which presents the "blue screen of death" to users at the slightest anomaly, Linux remains stable. It also offers security against code cracking. According to Torvalds, Linux's key is freedom freedom from "Microsoft's control and fine print" and constant price increases.

Why install Linux? For those searching for a fast, reliable, inexpensive operating system that can accommodate multiple users, act as an Internet server, and still support an easy-to-use desktop interface, Linux is better than Windows.

Linux also runs on older machines that can't handle Windows, such as an old 486. Furthermore, Linux provides an excellent Internet environment, requiring minimal resources, yet giving full Internet connectivity.

While there's a lot to like about Linux, getting started with it can be intimidating. At least 500MB of available hard drive space is needed to install Linux. While installing it isn't the enormous chore it once was, it's still not a streamlined process, especially because Linux cannot automatically detect all the hardware on a system. Since Linux is a multi-user operating system, every Linux installation requires a user password even if there's only one user.

Unfortunately, Linux hasn't matched Windows 98's nearly hands-free installation, encyclopedic Plug-and-Play hardware support, and robust cadre of available applications.

Corel Linux
Several software companies, including Corel and RedHat Software offer their own versions of Linux. Corel Linux ships with a graphical user interface (GUI) called KDE. RedHat's version includes GNOME. Both KDE and GNOME, looking remarkably like Windows, let users store files on the desktop, launch applications and utilities from pop-up menus, and track running applications with taskbar icons. Both of these versions include Netscape Communicator, a Photoshop-strength image editing application, assorted spreadsheet, word processing, database, calendar, contact programs, utilities, and lots of games.

Corel designed its Linux program for mass-market desktop users, giving it Plug and Play capabilities, a user interface similar to Windows, and an all-in-one browser, Corel Explorer, which browses local drives, local networks, and the Internet. It also features a "pseudo-Start button," which works like the Start button in Windows. Users can have as many as eight "virtual desktops" running at the same time, each with a different set of applications open. Corel Linux offers a four-step installation process, simple compared with other sources of Linux that typically take 40 steps.

Corel Linux also partitions a hard drive automatically, with options that can use free disk space, edit the partition table (for experienced Linux users), or install Linux into the DOS/Windows partition. This last feature lets users create a Linux subdirectory within Windows so they can try the Linux operating system before replacing Windows a necessary precaution.

Future of Linux
What does the future hold for Linux? Torvalds is ultimately responsible for how new versions of Linux look, although he delegates much of the work to colleagues, incorporating suggestions from Linux enthusiasts the world over, unlike Windows which is designed within one company.

But Linux has a long way to go to become a major contender. The shortage of application software, file compatibility problems between Linux and Windows users, and a lack of hardware support--particularly for Universal Serial Bus (USB) devices and DVD drives--mean Linux is still a hard sell. But it's getting easier.

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