One exciting and recent development that might have wider ramifications in the Windows world is the open source software sensation called Linux. Named after its creator, Linus Torvalds, Linux is a UNIX clone that runs on the same PC hardware as Windows, as well as on a variety of other hardware platforms. In the early days, Linux offered just a command line environment similar to DOS, but the emergence of free graphical interfaces based on an X Windows clone called X-Free jumpstarted the popularity of this interesting OS. Today, two major graphical environments, GNOME and KDE, compete for the affection of Linux desktop users.

Even still, Linux is rough and not to be taken lightly. As open source advocates and technology enthusiasts will tell you, Linux is often hard to install, near impossible to get working with certain hardware devices, and highly frustrating in even the best of conditions. I first installed Linux in October 1994--and eon ago in computing time--and have maintained at least one Linux machine since, which I generally refresh regularly with the latest and greatest Linux version at the time Though the operating system has improved in leaps and bounds unparalleled in this industry's short history, Linux still has a long way to go. But recent Linux distributions, such as the upcoming Red Hat 8 release, now in beta, point the way to a more refined Linux that even mere mortals might consider.

I recently tested the third beta release of Red Hat 8 (code-named Null) on a laptop computer, which is often the most demanding (and unsuccessful) type of Linux installation. However, Red Hat 8 installed flawlessly and recognized virtually every hardware device on the system, save the wireless networking card, while sporting a modern Windows XP-like user interface that's astonishingly friendly and beautiful looking. If anything, Red Hat has gone a bit too far over the ease-of-use edge: The Mozilla icon is labeled "Web browser: Browse the Internet," for example, abstracting the underlying application.

So how far has Linux come, you ask? Well, if you pop in an audio CD, the GNOME CD player starts up automatically and loads the CD's artist, title, and song title information from the Internet. (Heck, just the fact that the system's sound card worked at all is amazing, as long-time Linux users will agree.) My digital camera worked, allowing me to download and display pictures. I hooked up the bundled Ximian Evolution email client--essentially a very well done Outlook clone--to my IMAP mail server, and it just worked. My scanner worked. Networking worked. Almost everything worked, without me having to do any research and tweaking, a hallmark of most of my previous Linux installs. Could Linux be going mainstream?

Not exactly, but it's getting there. Though the system fonts, used in the desktop and logon screen, are gorgeous, they don't carry over to end-user applications like Mozilla, Evolution, and the bundled OpenOffice.org office productivity suite. Instead, fonts in these applications are small, jagged, and hard-to-read. I'm sure you can fix this--in fact, I've done it in the past, but fonts need to work right out of the box, obviously. Such a bizarre and glaring error isn't even conceivable in Windows or the Mac OS.

And I'm not ready to give the green light to flawless Linux installations just yet. Though the Red Hat 8 beta install worked just fine for me, I only installed it on a single system, and I've had enough bad luck with previous Linux versions to know better. I'll test the OS on a few other systems before I get giddy about this feature.

In the end, my advice about Linux remains cautious. It's getting there, but Linux is still at the stage where only true technophiles and computer tinkerers--preferably people with an extra system sitting around--need apply. From a switching standpoint, the real beauty of Linux is that it runs on the hardware you already own, and can be, with some help, made to work with your Windows data and, increasingly, even with certain Windows applications (though this latter feature is still a bit of a hack). Clearly, Linux has a bright future, and every day that goes by brings us closer to a time where mere mortals can step up to the plate and give Linux a shot. But that day, alas, is not here yet, not for most people.