Volume 17, Number 8
December 2000


Misguided Darling of the Techno-Geeks or Workhorse for the Law Office?

By Peter C. Scott

Unless you are incorrigibly technophobic, you probably have at least the vague impression that Linux is a free operating system that runs on PCs. You may even have noticed that Linux is being sold in an odd assortment of stores, from Staples to Borders, by companies such as Red Hat (www.redhat.org) and Corel (http://linux.corel.com). You may be wondering just what Linux is, why a supposedly "free" product is being sold for good hard cash, and whether you should look at Linux for your law office.

What Is Linux, Exactly?

Simply (and more accurately) put, Linux is the kernel of an operating system (OS) that works much like the powerhouse operating system UNIX. The kernel is the part that handles the nitty-gritty work of the operating system. The kernel does not do much by itself, however. To work, the kernel needs a lot of other parts to make a whole operating system. Think of a computer without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse-just the box by itself-and you get the general idea.

Linux (the kernel) was developed by Linus Torvalds when he was a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. He started the project in 1991 and released version 1.0 in 1994. The most recent version of the kernel, 2.2, was released in 1999 and is the result of years of work by numerous individuals, including Torvalds.

The story of what we think of as Linux (the operating system) actually starts earlier, in 1984, with a guy from MIT named Richard Stallman, who created the GNU Project (www.gnu.org). GNU is a recursive acronym that stands for GNU's Not UNIX. The idea was to make a free, UNIX-like operating system. It started from the bottom with a text editor and a compiler. With those tools, the thought was, one could make the rest. The ultimate goal is to provide free software to do all of the jobs computer users want to do-and thus make proprietary software obsolete (see www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-history.html). It's hard not to root for that kind of ambition.

So Who Owns Linux?

Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds. Beyond that, however, Linux and all GNU software is "free," though it all comes with some interesting restrictions.

When Stallman started the GNU Project, he considered a number of ways to view the concept of "free" software. Free might mean simply "no cost." The no-cost software might, however, be "closed" in the sense that you cannot look at or modify the source code (the instructions that make the program work). This would mean that you could not make changes or learn from others' efforts.

Software that is both "no cost" and "open" would be an improvement, but that might make the software part of the public domain. Someone can take public domain software, modify it, and make it proprietary. This would be contrary to the sense of cooperation and community.

The GNU Public License

Stallman wanted to make software that people could use, modify, and share with their friends. He also wanted to enforce the sense of community that he felt existed in the computer programming community. The GNU Public License (GPL) was designed to do this.

Under the GPL, you can copy the software, modify it, distribute it, even charge for it. What you cannot do, however, is restrict other people from copying the software, modifying it, distributing it, or charging for it. Any modifications you make to the source code cannot in any way limit others' rights to use it. This is the kind of freedom Stallman sought.

When you think about it, this is a rather clever idea. I do not know whether the GPL has been tested in court, but I know who I am rooting for if it happens.

Can One Trust Linux?

Linux is written by a large number of programmers who, by and large, receive no compensation for working on it. A rational question at this point might be: Why should I put the fate of my business in the hands of a bunch of nameless propeller heads who may wake up (or grow up) someday and decide they're bored with improving Linux? I mean, what's the profit in writing free code anyway? Greed (or enlightened self-interest) is what made this country great, not some communal-hippy-geek philosophy.

That analysis fails to take into account the nature of the computer programming community. Programmers generally enjoy programming. They also like being appreciated for doing a good job. What better way to enhance your reputation in the programming community than by writing a part of Linux? People who use your creation give you an indirect compliment, and real geeks can look at the source code and see how clever you are.

Beyond that, however, I have a theory that the best thing that ever happened to Linux was Microsoft, which has a reputation for producing buggy, overpriced, unstable operating systems. It also has the reputation for crushing anything that gets in its way. What better motivation could a community have than a common enemy, some minion from the Evil Empire squatting inside the computer in the next cubicle?

For this reason, I am rooting for Microsoft in its battle with the Justice Department. Feed the beast, I say. Let Microsoft get big and fat and slow. It will be crushed by its own weight. But I digress.

The Bridge Analogy

Let's go back to the original question of whether you should trust Linux. Suppose you're the mayor of a town located on both sides of a wide river. You want to build a modern bridge to join the two sides and replace the old, worn-out bridge that was built many years earlier. You submit a request for proposals and get two responses.

The first comes from a well-known company that says that it has just the plans you need. The company tells you:

  • You must pay an enormous amount of money for a complete set of plans.
  • Neither you nor your engineer may look at the plans, either before or after you buy them.
  • If anything goes wrong with the plans, the company will not promise to fix the problem.
  • If the company does decide to fix it, you will have to pay an additional amount for the new plans.

The second proposal comes from a local group of concerned citizens. They give you a complete set of plans and invite you and your engineer to take a look. They say that thousands of the best engineers in the nation have already looked at the plans and have made suggestions for improvement. They promise to provide you with updates and improvements for the plans as soon as they are made. They also say that the plans will never, ever cost a dime.

You are a bit skeptical of getting something good without having to pay anything. Hey, this is America, after all. Then somebody reminds you that the first company has a reputation for having their bridges shut down unexpectedly during rush hour and for bullying all major bridge contractors into selling only their plans.

OK, you say, a bit skeptically, but we are trying to practice law here, not build bridges. Is Linux appropriate for the law office? We are trying to practice law here, not build bridges. Would I recommend Linux for use by lawyers? As lawyers are apt to say: It depends. Do you want to use it in the front office (on the lawyer's desktop) or in the back office (as the backbone of your network)? How big is your office? What application software do you use?

Linux as Network OS

Linux is a full-featured network operating system. It is very powerful, very stable, very secure. You can set up a nice network using Linux as a file or print server. You can even put Windows machines on the network using a utility called SAMBA, and the Windows machines will happily coexist with Linux. I know; I did it at home using old 486s that my firm was throwing out. It turns out that Linux runs very well, at least in text-only form, on older machines. Old 486s make excellent file and print servers.

However, I also know that Linux is quite difficult for the average person to set up and maintain. If good old DOS made you nervous, you will have a breakdown with Linux. Then again, I doubt that setting up a Windows NT server is a good job for a newbie.

A sole practitioner who wants to network two or three computers can probably get away with the networking capabilities built into Windows 98. A Win98 network is quite easy to set up. Really. It is also reasonably reliable. Well, it is as reliable as Windows 98-which is to say not particularly reliable, I guess. As long as Windows 98 is up and running on all machines, you should be able to share files and peripherals with relative ease.

An office with more than one lawyer or more than a couple of computers would probably be a good candidate for a more sophisticated network. Someone considering Novell or Windows NT as a network probably should also consider Linux.

The only hitch is finding someone who knows enough about Linux to get you up and running. Finding the right consultant, however, is the main problem regardless of what type of network you're running. A lousy consultant will make even the most robust network run poorly. Come to think of it, the best advice might be simply to find the best consultant you can and buy whatever he or she sells.

Given a choice, however, I would choose someone who knows Linux. Cost is a factor, but not necessarily a major one. You may well end up paying nearly as much for a Linux consultant with a free OS as you would for a commercial OS plus consultant. Stability is also a minor factor. A well-configured network (regardless of brand) should run indefinitely without major glitches. It's the desktop computers that tend to crash, not the servers.

So why pick Linux, you ask. Because I'm not convinced that either Novell or Microsoft makes a better network OS than Linux, I personally would have more confidence in a consultant who shared that view. Besides, I would know that the consultant's judgment was not colored by the profit made on the sale of the OS.

Linux as Desktop OS

Whether or not you use Linux as a network OS, you may decide to use it as the desktop OS. Most computers that use the Pentium chip-which is to say the vast majority of computers these days-run Windows as the desktop OS. Let's face it, we are used to a Windows environment.

Linux also has a pretty face for the desktop. There are several versions. One is called Gnome (www.gnome.org), which is part of the GNU Project. Another is called the K Desktop Environment (KDE; www.kde.org), which is also free. As I write this, a number of the major players in the industry (Compaq, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun) are set to get behind Gnome.

I have used both Gnome and KDE on Linux. I find KDE a bit more pleasant to use, but I could get used to either one. They both do the job, though in all honesty Windows 98 looks a bit prettier to me. Maybe I'm just used to it, though.

Until recently, however, I would have said without qualification that the only reasons to put a Linux OS on your desktop were to show off to your techie friends or to thumb your nose at Microsoft. Neither seemed to be a good reason for most people. The real problem is that all the application software you would want is on Windows.

Times, as they say, are changing. At ABA's TECHSHOW this spring, I had the opportunity to observe Linux in action on the desktop. Corel has put together an interesting package that includes Linux bundled with the WordPerfect Office Suite for Linux. When I heard about it I was intrigued, because I use WordPerfect for word processing. When I saw it in action at TECHSHOW, I was impressed.

I asked Corel to send me a copy; I had to try it at home. I took an older Pentium machine with two hard drives on it. I formatted the primary drive for Windows and got that up and running. Then I let Corel do its magic on the second drive. Somehow Corel Linux got up and running on the second drive and allowed me to dual boot the machine (that is, select either Windows or Linux at start-up).

The machine runs just fine. Each OS is happily ignorant of the other when running. I can use the latest version of WordPerfect for Linux, if Linux is loaded, or the latest version of WordPerfect for Windows, if Windows is loaded. Each version runs nicely and gets the job done.

Now we have at least one package that will install the Linux OS and a Linux office suite on a computer system. There are others besides Corel that claim to do the same thing. Caldera (www.caldera.com) comes to mind. Caldera's version of Linux comes with StarOffice, a suite of standard office applications developed by Sun (www. sun.com/staroffice).

One problem remains, however. We still may not be able to run other software that we need. I know of no legal research software written for Linux.

Enter Wine (www.winehq.org). Wine is a recursive acronym (sound familiar?) for Wine Is Not an Emulator. What Wine does, theoretically at least, is allow various flavors of UNIX, including Linux, to run programs written for Windows.

That would be just the ticket, of course. Then we could use Linux as our OS and run our favorite Windows programs. Unfortunately, even the Wine developers admit that it's not quite ready for prime time. Wine is still under development and is not suitable for general use. Nevertheless, many people find it useful in running a variety of Windows programs.

I was dubious when I first heard about this. It sounded too good to be true. Nevertheless, it seems to be the real deal, although like voice recognition software it may always appear tantalizingly close but essentially impractical.

Bottom Line

I would recommend Linux as a network OS for anyone with more than a few computers to network. I like its stability, flexibility, security, and cost. I also like the fact that it runs reasonably well on old 486s. Moreover, I trust Linux developers more than I trust Microsoft. The former seem to have interests in line with my own; the latter does not.

I am somewhat more reserved in my enthusiasm for Linux as a desktop OS. To run Linux in a graphical environment, you need a reasonably powerful Pentium computer. If you need only an office suite, a number of companies can supply you with one that will run well under Linux. In addition, Netscape provides a nice browser for Linux.

If you're lucky, Wine might allow you to run other Windows programs under Linux. I wouldn't count on it, however, certainly not in the near future. If you need other Windows programs, stick with Windows. If you can get by with an office suite and Internet tools, you may be a good candidate for Linux. Finally, if you're enough of a geek, you can join a Linux user group. For example, New Hampshire has an umbrella group (www.gnhlug.org) and three or four local chapters.

Peter C. Scott is a partner in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, firm of Mulhern & Scott. He currently is on leave, pursuing a master's degree in computer science at the University of New Hampshire.

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