The Little Penguin That Could

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Imagine dining at a restaurant where there are just two dishes on the menu --and because one is being eaten by 90% of your fellow diners, the waiter advises you to order that. That was the choice facing computer consumers throughout the 1990s. You could select from a few relatively pricey Apple computers that ran Mac OS on the one hand, and a horde of cookie-cutter Windows-based PCs on the other. A third operating system, Linux, has been available for free since Linus Torvalds created it in 1991, but for years it was too complex to make it into the mainstream. For most users, Linux was like having to go back into the kitchen and cook a gourmet meal from scratch.

Finally, that is starting to change. Linux is still the preserve of geeks, many of whom showed up last week at LinuxWorld in San Francisco. But some of those geeks have realized there's money to be made from selling user-friendly versions of this powerful and supremely stable software to those who yearn for something better than Windows. Now Wal-Mart's website is selling $299 PCs that run on an operating system called Lindows (Microsoft is suing over the name), while another Linux brand called Lycoris Desktop LX is about to hit the shelves at CompUSA. The ubiquitous Linux logo, a penguin, is already a hit at places like IBM and much of the U.S. government. Should the rest of us tune him in too?


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The best bet right now is Lycoris Desktop/LX, which costs a mere $29. Lycoris has done an excellent job of hiding all the scary jargon usually associated with Linux, and its desktop looks like Windows' identical twin. This is pretty amazing, given that it was created by five guys with no funding working around the corner from Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. Yet most basic needs are met right out of the box: programs compatible with Microsoft Office, Outlook, AOL Instant Messenger, Adobe Photoshop — and, of course, Tetris.

Lycoris is an ideal Windows alternative for anyone buying a PC for the first time. Alas, if you already have Windows and want to switch, it's a little harder. To save all your old files, you have to create a partition on your hard drive, which is just as difficult as it sounds Powerquest.com's Partition Magic will do it for an additional $59). Maybe when Lycoris hires its sixth employee, it can start making this part easier.

Lindows, launched by dotcom veteran Michael Robertson with the millions he made selling MP3.com, has a few more problems. The bargain-basement $299 Microtel PC comes without a monitor, which will cost you $128 more. If you have a PC, you can pay $99 to download Lindows (at lindows.com). If you have Windows 95 or 98, you can choose to install Lindows without wiping out your original operating system. But here's the catch: Lindows comes into the world pretty much naked. You must download most of the software you'll need through a program called Click-N-Run.

At dial-up modem speeds, however, it's more like Click-N-Crawl. Lindows tries its best to act friendly and look Windows-like, but right now it's hard to use for half an hour without a lot of jargon about the root directory and other comp-sci stuff appearing on the screen. It will run a lot of Windows programs — games being the major exception. (Robertson has backed off earlier claims that his system is entirely Windows compatible.) Basically, Lindows is a work in progress. Stand by for the final release.

On the whole, Linux is still something of an acquired taste. You have to be wary of your peripherals (getting some older printers to work is quite a headache). And tech support can be hard to find in a Windows world. But what you get in return is a very fast, very cheap, crash-free system that can be installed on as many computers as you like. Pay attention to the penguin: he's going places.

Questions for Chris? You can e-mail him at cdt@well.com