Microsoft and the Linux Threat



Authors: Ravi Madapati,
Faculty Member
ICMR (IBS Center for Management Research).

The successful evolution of Linux into a popular operating system looked improbable when it was first launched 10 years years ago. That seems to have changed now. Linux's increasing popularity is posing a threat to the dominance of Microsoft. This article shows how Linux is making inroads into the closely guarded territory of Microsoft.

Microsoft Chairman, Bill Gates is clearly worried these days about the competition that his best selling Windows operating system is facing from Linux. Though not owned by any company, a powerful movement is championing Linux led by a ragtag band of open source programming volunteers scattered around the globe and hooked up via the Internet.

The software is flexible enough to run on hardware ranging from an IBM supercomputer to a Motorola cell phone. Both developers and users are figuring out how to take full advantage of Linux. Analysts believe Linux has gained ground due to a combination of circumstances. The downturn in the US economy has put corporations under intense pressure to reduce their computing bills and look for low-cost alternatives. Intel, the dominant maker of processors for PCs has loosened its tight links with Microsoft and started optimizing its chips for Linux in addition to Windows. Corporations are able to get all the computing power they wanted at a fraction of the price. The widespread resentment of Microsoft and the fear that the company is on the verge of gaining a stranglehold on corporate customers is another factor.

Many knowledgeable users seem to like the idea of being able to customize Linux on their own. This is not possible with Windows.

The Rise of Linux

Linux had originated from another operating system UNIX, designed by AT&T in the 1970s. UNIX had a unique, modular, file-based structure that allowed the system to evolve piecemeal. Many software developers could work independently on various parts of the program. An important event in the history of Unix was the development of a free clone of it called the GNU UNIX, by Richard Stallman (Stallman), an independent programmer at MIT. Since UNIX was modular system, Stallman was able to replicate its functionality piece by piece. His software acquired an excellent reputation for quality. The compatibility of Stallman's system with UNIX ensured that Stallman had a large base of users for his free software.

Stallman, however, was slow to write a new operating system kernel (the set of components that contained the most important basic functions needed for managing system access, file storage, memory usage, device drivers, and processor scheduling). This delay provided an opportunity for Linus Torvalds (Torvalds) to come up with Linux.

While in college in Finland, Torvalds was using a program called Minix, an educational operating system developed by Andrew Tanenbaum (Tanenbaum), a professor at the Free Amsterdam University. Tanenbaum, frustrated by AT&T's decision to make new releases of UNIX proprietary, decided to write an operating system similar to UNIX that would not be based on AT&T's code. Tanenbaum called his UNIX-like operating system Minix. But Tanenbaum did not think of Minix as a commercial product and was in no hurry to evolve the system as fast as people like Torvalds wanted. Torvalds bought his first PC in January 1991 and installed the version of Minix that had been adapted to the Intel 80386 chip. He played with it, downloaded Stallman's GNU C Compiler, and started writing programs to experiment with Minix.

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