P R O B A T E   &   P R O P E R T Y
March/April 2002
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Technology—Probate provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the probate and estate planning areas. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Linux for Lawyers

Although most columns are devoted to software written for the Microsoft Windows operating system, there are alternatives, such as the Apple Macintosh and Linux. Unfortunately for Apple devotees, this column will not be about the Macintosh, but about the newer kid on the block, Linux.

What Is Linux?

Linux (pronounced "lih-nuhcks," not "lye-necks") is a somewhat stripped-down version of Unix, one of the oldest and most popular multi-tasking, multi-user operating systems. The Linux kernel (the central component of the operating system) was developed by a Finnish graduate student, Linus Torvalds, in 1991. The Free Software Foundation and Project GNU ("GNU" is a recursive acronym meaning "GNU is Not Unix") had been working to develop the other components needed for a complete operating system, and they added the Linux kernel in 1992 to release what is now known as GNU/Linux or just plain Linux.

One of the things that makes Linux unique is the licensing agreement under which it is distributed. Under the terms of the GNU General Public License developed by the Free Software Foundation, Linux and its source code (the instructions that were compiled to create the operating system) are distributed for free and can be modified and redistributed, subject to two very important restrictions. These restrictions are that any redistributed software must include the source code and must be subject to the same licensing agreement. For example, I can buy a distribution of Linux, add my own modifications, and legally resell the resulting product, including the components originally purchased from someone else. Linux has been described as the first operating system written as a chain letter, with each programmer adding two or three lines of code before passing it along to five friends.

Linux is therefore available for free and can be downloaded from a number of different web sites. Many Linux applications are also free (or very inexpensive). In fact, many of the applications described in this column can be downloaded for free or purchased on a CD for less than $50.

Distributions and Desktops

Linux comes in different flavors, referred to as "distributions," each of which will include a number of utilities not included in the original Linux operating system, such as utilities for installing the system and software applications. The most popular distributions include Red Hat Linux from Red Hat Software ( www.redhat.com ), Caldera OpenLinux from Caldera Systems, Inc. ( www.caldera.com ), SuSE Linux from SuSE Inc. ( www.suse.com ), Debian/GNU sponsored by a nonprofit organization, Software in the Public Interest, Inc. ( www.debian.org ), and Corel Linux (which is based on the Debian distribution), previously available from Corel ( www.corel.com ) but recently transferred to Xandros Corporation ( www.xandros.net ).

There are also a number of different desktop environments available for Linux, all of which are based on the "X Windows" graphical user interface. These X Windows desktops can appear to be very similar to Microsoft Windows, with pull-down menus and icons, and the most popular desktops are based on GNOME ("GNU Network Object Model Environment"), KDE ("K Desktop Environment"), and Motif. To further confuse matters, different Linux distributions may come with different desktop environments. So, for example, Red Hat Linux comes with both GNOME and KDE (with GNOME as the default), but Corel Linux comes with only KDE (although GNOME can be added by the user).

These choices may lead to confusion and concern about software compatibility, but for most users and most applications the decisions are not that critical. Most Linux applications will run under each of the different distributions and desktops, although some modifications may be needed in some cases.

Red Hat Linux is the most popular distribution and has become something of an industry standard, but lawyers and law firms wanting to try Linux might prefer the Corel distribution, which is easy to install and is designed for desktop applications (and not server applications) and provides support for WordPerfect and other Corel applications.

Basic Office Software

For basic office tasks (word processing, spreadsheets, databases, e-mail, etc.), there is a surprising variety of choices.

Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 is still available for Linux and includes not only WordPerfect 2000 but also Quattro Pro, Corel Presentations, the Paradox database, and CorelCentral for managing information such as tasks, calendars, and contact information.

Although Microsoft Word is not available for Linux, there is a something of a work-alike in the form of StarOffice from Sun Microsystems ( www.sun.com ), which provides word processing (reported to have 80% of the functionality of MS Word), spreadsheets, presentation applications, graphics, calendar, Internet browser, e-mail, and scheduler. StarOffice is also available for Microsoft Windows and other operating systems.

A relatively new release is Ximian Evolution from Ximian Inc. ( www.ximian.com ), which functions like Microsoft Outlook and provides integrated e-mail, task and contact lists, scheduling, and calendars. Ximian is also promoting a software link to allow its Evolution application to share information with Microsoft Exchange servers. The Ximian desktop can also provide word processing, spreadsheets, and graphics-editing applications.

Estate Software

For estate-specific software, the choices are much more restricted. There are only two estate administration software applications that might run under Linux, although the vendors admit that they do not yet know of any users actually running Linux with their applications. Because these applications are not written from Linux source code, they are not subject to the GNU general public license described above, and the costs will be the same as for MS Windows applications.

6-in-1 from the Lackner Group, Inc. ( www.lacknergroup.com ) can provide fiduciary accountings, federal estate tax returns (Form 706), and fiduciary income tax returns (Form 1041), as well as many other state tax returns and state filings. Lackner’s 6-in-1 should be able to run under Linux because the applications are written using Filemaker Pro, and Filemaker Inc. ( www.filemaker.com ) supports Red Hat Linux, as well as the Mac OS and other operating systems.

In a similar fashion, the FASTER system from FASTER Systems LLC ((508)347-0195) should be able to provide fiduciary accountings, federal estate tax returns, fiduciary income tax returns, and other returns and filings under Linux, because the FASTER system is written in Progress. Progress Software ( www.progress.com ) supports Linux, as well as other operating systems.

For other essential programs, such as estate tax planning or other estate applications, that are available only as MS Windows software, it may be possible to run the applications under Linux using an emulator such as Wine ( www.winehq.com ) that supports many (but not all, or even most) Win32 software. The developers of Wine, however, admit that it is developmental software that is not suitable for general use.


Working with MS Windows is not always easy, is sometimes maddeningly difficult, and is usually mysterious. Working with Linux should be less mysterious and less maddening but, except for the simplest installations, will require a higher order of knowledge about the operating system and how to install and maintain applications. If you think of owning a computer like owning a house, then MS Windows usually requires no more than some simple repairs with pliers and a screwdriver. Linux, on the other hand, often requires the ability to install new plumbing or wiring.

Linux is therefore not for the technologically timid or the faint of heart, but can provide a stable, efficient, and inexpensive computing environment for those willing to work on the "bleeding edge" of technology.

Want to look up past columns? An index of past columns, and the software covered by those columns, is now available through the Technology and Economics (K-2) Committee, at www.abanet.org/rppt/cmtes/pt/k2/ptk2-cwp.html .


Technology-Probate Editor: Daniel B. Evans, P.O. Box 27370, Philadelphia, PA 19118, dan@evans-legal.com.