Scott Draeker launched a tiny company this year to translate popular computer games written for Microsoft Windows to the obscure Linux operating system, a format that was mostly in favor among a tiny group of digital geeks.
Draeker said his Tustin-based company is hiring more Linux programmers and after several months of start-up jitters, he's breathing easier.
"We've got two titles and we'll do eight by the end of the year," he said. "We're at the point where we're thinking, 'How long can we get away with this?' "
No one knows if Draeker's company will survive, but its very existence demonstrates how Linux is migrating from the world of high-performance networked computers into the home--the bastion of newbies and technophobes.
Linux, with its complex commands, turbopowered features and lack of applications, hasn't made much of a dent in the home market, where consumers favor the familiarity of Windows and its endless supply of compatible software.
But the plummeting prices of personal computers and the high cost of Windows software have begun to make free Linux an attractive idea.
Windows can add as much as $50 to the price of a computer--a minor cost on a $2,000 machine but a significant amount for sub-$500 PCs. In this era of free computers, programs and Internet access, Microsoft has managed to hold the price of Windows steady--and even increase its grip on the PC market.
But in recent months, software companies such as Red Hat and Caldera Systems have tried to nibble away at Microsoft's position by making Linux easier to install. They have also included programs that give the operating system a polished graphical interface that is similar to--some say even better than--Windows.
Now mainstream programs for the home and small office are becoming available for Linux, and computer makers such as Dell and IBM are selling machines with Linux installed, although they are mainly aimed at "power users."
IBM said Wednesday that its ThinkPad 600E became the first laptop computer to be certified by Red Hat as compatible with its version of Linux.
Spokesman Peter Tulupman said customers can now install Linux on the machines with confidence, though for the time being, IBM itself will not preinstall the operating system.
'Linux Is Beginning to Make Sense'
Computer companies that sell specialized high-end Linux machines have just begun selling lower-priced Linux boxes. One example is an $899 computer from VA Linux Systems, a leading Linux-only company.
"Linux is not at the point where we will see it in the home yet, but it will get there," said Sandra Steere Potter, research director of Linux services at Aberdeen Group, a research and consulting firm based in Boston. "In another 12 months we will have a different picture."
The biggest push for Linux may ultimately come from cheap digital appliances and personal-computing devices that do not need a full-blown operating system. Linux could play a significant role because of its low cost and open format, said Dan Kusnetzky, a director at research house International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.
"Linux is beginning to make sense," Kusnetzky said. "It's going to grow stronger and stronger since it's small, fast, reliable and free, which is an awfully exciting number."
Linux was designed from the beginning to be a stable and reliable operating system for Intel microprocessors. It was developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, then a 21-year-old computer science student at Finland's University of Helsinki who was fed up with the Microsoft DOS system running on his home PC.
He based Linux on the industrial-strength operating system known as Unix, which had been developed by AT&T's Bell Laboratories to handle large corporate and university networks. What distinguished Linux was Torvalds' decision to make the underlying code freely available on the Internet and require that all improvements also be made available to other users.
The core of the operating system, along with many components and applications, are freely available for download. Companies such as Red Hat and Caldera sell packaged versions that include support, documentation and their own enhancements.
The result is a stable family of software that has quickly improved, thanks to the work of thousands of programmers around the world.
The program has become a challenger to Microsoft's Windows NT, seizing about 16% of unit sales to the server market last year, compared with NT's 38%, according to IDC. The figures understate Linux's impact since they count only packages that are sold, not the free software.
Sensing an Opportunity
On the desktop and in the home, however, Linux has been virtually invisible--hovering at about 2% of sales last year for desktops--compared with Microsoft's Windows 95, 98 and NT Workstation, which together make up close to 90% of all operating systems sold for desktops, according to IDC. Linux still trails Apple's Mac operating system, which has about 5% of sales.