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Demystifying Linux


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Demystifying Linux

Thanks to new software, you don't have to be a geek to use the free operating system

When making his pitch to small-business customers, software salesman Chris Biber is careful to avoid the "L-word." Few understand it, and many are downright frightened by it, says the marketing vice-president for Rebel.com Inc., a software developer in Ottawa, Ont. The word? Linux.

Small-business owners have had good reason to be Linux-phobic. True, the operating system made famous by software pioneer Linus Torvalds is free and crash-resistant. And the grassroots appeal of "open-source" coding refined by thousands of unpaid programmers is undeniable. But Linux has always demanded considerable technical skill on the part of the user. Unlike the Windows or Macintosh operating systems, Linux doesn't try to hide computing from the computer user. That means the friendly interfaces and prompts offered on Windows- and Mac-based software are typically absent with Linux.

But the techie face of Linux is beginning to change. Several small developers, including Rebel.com and fellow maverick e-Smith Inc., have begun pasting friendly, easy-to-use interfaces on Linux business software. While anathema to Linux geeks, such improvements are good news for entrepreneurs.

"I have no clue about Linux," confesses James A. Hertz, an attorney at the Sioux Falls (S.D.) law firm of Christopherson, Bailin & Anderson. "I can't program in it." Nonetheless, Hertz counts himself among the true believers since purchasing e-Smith Server and Gateway, a communications software package that allows small businesses to network their computers, create an e-mail system, and set up a Web site.

Launched 18 months ago, e-Smith Inc., which is backed by leading Linux publisher Red Hat Inc., now runs on about 15,000 servers. It can be networked with Windows- and Mac OS-based computers, which means you can buy a no-name PC, load e-Smith Server and Gateway on it, then network your IBM ThinkPad and your graphics designer's Macintosh. Plus, it's dirt cheap, particularly if you have multiple users. Because there's no per-user fee for e-Smith Server and Gateway, the cost for 5 or 50 users is still $595. That includes software, telephone tech support, and software updates for a year. Compare that with Microsoft Corp.'s Small Business Server, which costs $1,499 for the software, plus $2,297 for a 50-user license, and $1,225 for moderate telephone support--a grand total of $5,021.

Hertz saved himself a bundle. After a local Internet service provider said it would charge $6,800 to install a dedicated Web system server and create a Web site and e-mail, he searched the Web for alternatives. He stumbled on e-Smith, and downloaded the software onto an aging desktop PC. He paid e-Smith $40 for manuals, and in a matter of hours had the system up and running with some minor (and free) telephone tech support from e-Smith. Now, the entire six-person office runs on Linux, with everything the ISP offered and no problems with compatibility. The server, Hertz says, "has been rock-solid."

Rebel.com's NetWinder OfficeServer offers similar savings. As with e-Smith Server and Gateway, NetWinder OfficeServer enables you to set up an office-wide e-mail system and create a Web site and "virtual private network" over the Internet. NetWinder OfficeServer, which bundles hardware and software, is a little more expensive--$1,795 for a system with 64MB of RAM and a 10GB hard drive.

Remember that Rebel.com and e-Smith offer only communications products. You'll still have to purchase or download Linux-based office programs, which are seldom as user-friendly as those written for Windows. Among the office suites most frequently recommended by Linux users is Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice. Available for free over the Internet from Sun, the package includes a word processor, spreadsheet, business-presentation software, calendar, graphics program, database, and calculator. StarOffice is largely compatible with Microsoft Office. That means users can open and edit Microsoft Office files and save StarOffice 5.2 files as Microsoft office files. (Macintosh users are out of luck; a Mac-compatible version isn't due out until late this year.)

Even a few incompatability problems can put users in a jam, however. And that explains why Linux users remain just a handful. When support costs are added in, you could end up paying more. Sun Microsystems, like other Linux developers, charges for support per incident.

So, is Linux software worth trying? Not if you're fairly new to computers--if, for example, you've never downloaded software over the Internet or even glanced at a software manual. "For a really small business, Linux is probably not practical," says Noah Kaufman, managing partner for New World Design, a high-tech consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., that resells Linux software.

Still, if you have the patience to negotiate a few glitches, consider giving it a shot. Linux users are a vocal and helpful group, and free tech support is readily available at any of the sites operated by Linux user groups or Linux resellers (Linuxmall.com and Yahoo.com are good places to start). Bottom line? Provided you can deal with the occasional technical challenge, finding dependable, affordable software doesn't have to scare the "L" out of you.By Kevin FergusonReturn to top


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