Glass ceiling

With Windows under attack from viruses, could more companies switch their operations to Linux? Chris Gulker investigates
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The Independent Online

While much of the world was reeling from a double internet virus assault that left many corporations, government offices and home users temporarily unable to function, one company was doing just fine: Ernie Ball Guitar Strings, a 72-person firm based in San Luis Obispo, California. It makes guitar strings used by names ranging from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones to Good Charlotte. Ironically, the reason the Microsoft-targeted viruses didn't affect it is because of something Microsoft did three years ago.

Then, Sterling Ball, the company's chief executive, gave his IT department 90 days to get every copy of Microsoft's software out of his plant. His firm had been raided, and then humiliated in a national publicity campaign by the Business Software Alliance, an anti-piracy group funded by Microsoft and other large software companies. Ball estimates his firm unintentionally had 8 per cent too few licences; the publicity left him fuming. Ridding himself of Microsoft was the only way he could see to get even, albeit only at a company level. But it paid off in ways he couldn't have foreseen.

Ball's computers now run Red Hat Linux, a supported version of the free operating system developed by Linus Torvalds when he was a computer science student. "We've got the only computers running," said Ball. "We're fine. But our business has been affected - we are seeing a lot of e-mail bounces, and our customers' and vendors' systems have been down."

It's possible that the confidence he feels, following his rejection of the biggest software company's products, will soon be echoed by other businesses, and even public organisations. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, says that Linux is one of the top 10 things that keep him awake at night. (One wonders about the other nine, of course.) The problems Microsoft has in trying to combat the threat to its business from Linux is that there's no single company to compete with, it's free and it's immune to the thousands of Windows viruses now circulating on the net.

For a while, Microsoft could rely on its customers, especially the biggest ones, staying with it regardless. Until recently, only ponytailed tech fanatics suggested that Linux would end the dominance of Windows, which runs something like 80 per cent of the world's computers (if you're including servers as well as desktop machines; if only the latter, then it's about 95 per cent).

But the negatives have begun to pile up. The latest e-mail worms certainly haven't helped governments and enterprises that might have been wavering. In August, the worm and virus attacks shut down the US Department of Defense and the Maryland State Department of Motor Vehicles, among others. CSX, a railroad company, was forced to stop trains in 23 eastern states, Air Canada had to suspend flights, and the control system at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio was found to have been crashed by an earlier Microsoft worm. A suspicious computer freeze at the utility manager FirstEnergy is even causing speculation that the Blaster worm played a role in the power outages that hit the US and Canada in August.

The consultants Meta Group published research in August that says that even with anti-virus software installed, Windows products are vulnerable because modern worms can spread quickly, before anti-virus vendors can react: the Blaster worm, for example, infected 75,000 computers in 10 minutes. By contrast, worms and viruses that target Microsoft products cannot directly infect Linux machines.

Philip Dawson, a London-based analyst at Meta Group, says he expects governments and educational institutions to widely embrace Linux over Microsoft in the next five years.

For governments, there are practical and political reasons to like Linux. On the practical side, Microsoft's new pricing structure is much more expensive for large users, without guaranteeing any improvements such as immunity to worms and viruses. On the political side, governments, particularly those outside the US, would rather see the large cheques they currently write to an American monopoly go to local developers in the hopes of spawning a home-grown software industry.

The city council of Munich made that clear in July, when it awarded a contract to upgrade 14,000 computers to Germany's own SuSE Linux, even though Steve Ballmer at Microsoft personally pitched a hugely discounted deal that was cheaper.

But this is not an overnight change. It started in the late Nineties, when open-source developers launched projects called Gnome and KDE, intended to make Linux (first released in 1991) easier to use. Another project, OpenOffice, produced a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation programs that could read and write Microsoft Office files.

Like Linux itself, Gnome and KDE have improved greatly. Two Gnome developers, Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman, started a company called Ximian to develop a commercial version of Gnome, complete with e-mail, browser and productivity programs that could be easily mastered by non-technical people used to Windows.

By 2003, Ximian's XD2 desktop had improved so much that Novell, a Microsoft rival with $1bn in sales, bought the company. Novell's chief technology officer, Alan Nugent, says: "Ximian XD2 masks a lot of complexity of the underlying technology, and insulates the user from stuff best left to guys with ponytails."

Ernie Ball Strings uses Ximian's Evolution, an e-mail, contact and calendar program to replace Microsoft's Outlook on Linux computers.

Siemens Business Services, an IT service provider, also thinks that the Ximian desktop is ready for the big time. Duncan McNutt, its senior program manager, says that testing with real-world "secretaries and managers - not IT people" had shown that Ximian was no harder to introduce than a Windows upgrade.

"Ximian did a very nice job... people are very comfortable with the 'look and feel' of the programs."

Linux is now definitely not just for the geeks. People in good suits with business cards are spreading the word: the largest IT companies, including IBM, HP and Oracle, now support Linux. Sun Microsystems has even used the worm attacks to launch a campaign to switch Windows users to its upcoming Linux-based desktop, code-named "Mad Hatter". Sun vice-president Jonathan Schwartz calls Windows "an Achilles heel in the safety and security of the world's network infrastructure".

McNutt went on to say that Linux could be 20-80 per cent cheaper than Microsoft at very large institutions; millions of users could be routinely using Linux on their work computer. Might this large group also choose to jettison expensive Microsoft software at home in favour of cheap, worm-free and easy-to-use Linux? Might other users follow? They're questions to ponder - and certainly one more thing to keep Steve Ballmer awake at night.