Microsoft Windows has such a firm grip on the operating-system market that recent statistics show Windows, in some form or another, powering at least 70% of all desktops, laptops, and servers. So who in their right mind would try to challenge Window’s dominance with another operating system? The answer: Not a who at all, but more a what, a movement called Linux.

Observers are casting the Linux operating system in the role of David against Microsoft as Goliath. Linux started out not as a commercial venture, but as a kernel written by Swedish developer Linus Torvalds who released it in the public domain on the condition that it remain open and free. You can download the source code gratis.

You can also buy a version from several sources. These companies have added self-installing and other user-friendly features, and a few simple applications. Red Hat Software in North Carolina, for example, sells a version with supporting software for only $29. Dial up www.linux.org/dist/english.html to see others. In an effort that is literally worldwide, individual developers are adding features and fixing bugs as soon as they are reported.

Of course, there is little personal software to run on Linux, but even that is changing. For example, the developer of WordPerfect has announced that it’s porting its office product (word processor, spreadsheet, database, and presentation software).

Macsyma Inc. and CAD developer SolidWorks have respectively ported Macsyma math software and a 3D Java viewer to Linux. Spatial Technology, developer of the ACIS solid-modeling kernel, has also announced a release of the kernel written for Linux.

And if Linux is free, other software should be as well, says Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems. He bought a German company that develops an office suite of applications for Linux, called StarOffice, and now offers it at no cost from the Sun Web site. The Microsoft Office-compatible software also runs on Windows 95/98/NT, OS/2, and Solaris.

Linux is already widely used as server software, mostly because of its reported reliability, stability, general simplicity, and of course, low cost. For example, the owner of a design studio in Arizona told me his business functions on two servers, one running Windows NT and the other Linux. A recent storm interrupted power to his facility, shutting down the servers. When power returned, the Windows NT computer took 30 to 40 min to reboot and eventually came back on-line only with manual attention. The server running Linux, however, rebooted itself from a script and was back on-line without human intervention in a matter of minutes.

Capability of this sort is not going unnoticed. Hewlett-Packard, a developer of its own brand of Unix, says its Intel-based workstations now run Linux at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. HP collaborated with CERN for more than a year to study Linux performance and reliability issues. One particularly large physics experiment there required linking 30 dual-CPU PC workstations into a single large data-processing cluster. It has been in service since late last spring and operates around-the-clock to process more than 30 terabytes of physics data. Since the beginning of the collaboration, HP claims not a single hardware or Linux-related failure has been observed.

Of course, Windows NT has also earned its share of laurels. Its initial claim to fame was the promise of heavy-duty computing capabilities that Windows 3.1 and 95 could not provide. NT runs on a range of computers (Intel and Alpha processors), handles two and four-processor arrangements in servers or high-powered desktop machines, tends to crash less than Window 95 or 98, and looks and feels like Windows, something Unix or Linux cannot claim.

Best of all, NT’s cost of ownership is far less than Unix. NT’s increasingly widespread use has flattened Unix sales.

But NT is entering adolescence and showing a few pimples. For example, other software developers say Windows 2000, NT’s protégé, is late and probably still won’t match the reliability of Unix or Linux. One might expect a swing to Linux if Windows 2000 does not provide improved sufficient performance for engineers. So from my perspective it looks like the scene above is about to play itself out again with Linux as the newcomer and NT as the sluggish old timer.

For the present, however, Microsoft has little to worry about. But in a couple years I’ll bet I begin reporting that this CAD package or that FEA program now runs on Linux.