Long considered the computer operating system of the pocket-protector set, Linux at one point seemed poised to enter into America’s schools and establish itself as a possible competitor to Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac OS.

Don’t hold your breath.

Companies that produce hardware and software for Linux have touted the benefits and efficiencies of Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds’ open-source operating system, but schools have yet to embrace the platform, citing a lack of educational applications and limited technical expertise.

Linux is a free computer operating system that offers the potential for true multitasking and greater stability than Windows, its proponents say.

Because the source code is free, thousands of developers around the world continually work to improve both the core operating system software and programs that run on it.

Most Linux elements can be downloaded for free, but Red Hat, Corel, and other companies have combined the operating system with popular components and fairly intuitive installation programs and bundled it all into packages sold in computer stores.

Most of these companies hope to make money by offering training, documentation, and support services.

Ottawa-based Corel Corp. began marketing the Linux platform and applications to the education market as far back as the March 2000 Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando.

At that show, Corel demonstrated its own desktop version of Linux, which, the company claimed, was easy to install, easy to use, and simple to integrate within existing networked environments.

The software could be downloaded without cost from Corel’s web site and be installed in a separate partition on the hard drive of Windows-based computers, so the machines could run using either system. Unlike earlier versions, Corel’s version of Linux employed a graphical user interface for easy navigation.

At FETC 2000, Corel also launched a Linux-based version of its WordPerfect Office 2000 suite, with word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software.

Educators who previewed the software at the conference said Linux could be a great fit for the education market, because of its low ownership cost and flexible deployment.

“Schools are spending thousands of dollars a year to license Windows,” one Florida educator said, “and with Linux, there is no planned obsolescence every few years.”

Not ready for desktop prime time?

Because Linux’s source code is free and can by modified by anyone, improvements have been quick and constant. But that freedom is a double-edged sword that also forces users to deal with complicated configurations and lack of a uniform code.

As a result, Linux last year was able to capture less than 2 percent of the desktop PC market for consumers, which remains dominated by Microsoft Corp.’s Windows, according to International Data Corp. figures.

Eazel Inc., which had been one of the most promising companies trying to bring Linux to the masses, went out of business last month after failing to attract investors.

“We were probably trying to do too much too fast. Frankly, we still have a couple years to go before Linux catches up with Windows,” said Bart Decrem, an Eazel co-founder. “The reality is that Windows is good enough for most people.”

Last September, eSchool News reported that Corel had posted a deep second-quarter 2000 loss of nearly $24 million that reflected dwindling cash reserves, shrinking demand for its established software, and little indication that the Linux-based products would rescue the company. The loss came even after Corel laid off 320 employees, or 21 percent of its work force, earlier that year.

In October, rival Microsoft invested $135 million in Corel’s stock, purchasing a 24.6 percent stake in the company. Since then, Corel has rallied slightly by posting a small profit in first quarter of 2001, earning $534,000, or 1 cent a share, on sales of $32.5 million in the quarter.

Sales of the company’s Linux-based products have been disappointing, however. Corel reported Linux sales of $4.9 million over the first half of 2000—only 25 percent of its target of $20 million for that year.

Educators agree on one thing: One of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption of Linux has been the lack of applications developed to run on it.

“The primary reason for not using Linux more widely is the lack of application support,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano (Texas) Independent School District.

“We support over 400 instructional and administrative applications, and these applications are the reason we have technology in our classrooms and departments. Hence the need to run an operating system that supports them,” he said.

“This is also the primary deciding factor as to when we deploy PC versus Macintosh computers,” Hirsch added.

Some use at server level

There are ways around the “lack of applications” problem, Linux users say. In April 2000, eSchool News featured a school district in North Carolina that had switched its servers over to Linux.

“The main reason we are using Linux for our server environment is because it costs less,” said Monty Fuchs, Haywood County School District’s technology coordinator at the time. “I can put it on as many servers as I want, and I can put as many users on as I want.”

Haywood schools saved an estimated $50,000 on all the licensing they would have bought had they not switched, said network administrator Michael Williams.

According to Williams, the district has gotten around the applications problem by using software that emulates Windows NT, allowing all NT applications to run on top of the Linux servers. The emulator they use is available at no cost from Samba.com.

“Thanks to the emulator, as far as the students and teachers know they are working on NT,” said Williams.

Still, not everyone is convinced.

“What we’re going to have to see is a grassroots movement” for Linux to catch on among K-12 schools, said Derik Belair, former director of strategic applications for Corel. But that movement has not taken off fast enough to entice educators to switch platforms, it seems.

Market research firm Quality Education Data (QED) has a limited amount of information on server operating systems at the district level, explained Gus Greival, QED’s manager of market research analysis. But there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence suggesting a fairly low level of acceptance for Linux, he said.

Greival said there is some evidence in QED’s database that the Linux OS is being used at the server level, particularly as a web server. “But it does not appear to have entered the classroom at all,” he said.

“There is some appeal to the open-source nature of Linux, but that appeal can be offset by the limited number of applications for educational purposes,” said Greival.

And that is not the only drawback to the Linux platform.

Greival explained that in his experience—he worked at a university that switched its servers entirely to the Linux OS—the open-source server is not as easy to troubleshoot when problems arise.

“My experience with Linux has been that when you run into trouble, it is not as straightforward to solve those problems,” he said. “When you have a problem with Microsoft, for instance, there are all sorts of ways to get help, and it’s available at a very remedial level. With Linux, you need to be pretty familiar with how your machine is working to get help.”

Williams admits that Linux can be more difficult to use. Haywood schools have employed a free web-based configuration tool called Webmin.com to administer the network. Otherwise it might be very difficult for network technicians unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Linux OS.

“Before [we started to use Webmin.com] the Linux network was strictly command-line entry,” said Williams. “Webmin really makes for an easier user interface.”

Despite the challenges, Williams has few regrets about installing the open-source solution in his district and advises the reluctant to give it a shot for themselves.

“I’d suggest getting an old computer and loading it up and starting to play,” he said. “I think [users will] be hooked.”

Links:

Corel Corp.
http://www.corel.com

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Eazel Inc.
http://www.eazel.com

Haywood County School District
http://www.haywood.k12.nc.us/public

Plano Independent School District
http://www.pisd.edu

Quality Education Data
http://www.qeddata.com