SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) â€” As the new kid on the block, the Linux computer operating system once had few friends besides the stereotypical technology geek whose idea of fun was spending hours rewriting software code.
But as that same kid begins to gather dozens of new electronic toys around it, Linux has suddenly become part of the in crowd â€” and an increasing threat to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows monopoly.
As the third annual LinuxWorld Conference & Expo opens this week here, companies such as Hewlett-Packard are joining Dell Computer and IBM Corp. in designating Linux a ``strategic'' operating system as each works to gain market share in the high-end server computer market.
Linux is moving out of the fringe and gaining even more followers in manufacturers of devices for the consumer marketplace. The show is being used as a forum to introduce how the software will be used in everything from electronic organizers to wristwatches to gaming consoles.
``All of a sudden, it's become something that is actually affecting consumers,'' said Amy Wohl of independent consulting firm Wohl Associates, which tracks the industry. ``One after another, you've seeing companies belly up to the bar and say, `Gee, Linux is a good operating system for writing code on lightweight, small devices.'''
Industry analysts are predicting small, wireless devices soon will be the preferred method around the world for accessing the Internet.
Companies developing such devices are flocking to Linux because the so-called open-source platform allows anyone to tinker with the operating system to fit individual needs and frees them from paying costly licensing fees. That helps keep the price of new devices at consumer-acceptable levels.
Motorola Inc., for example, hopes to challenge Palm's dominance in the handheld organizer market with a device running on the Linux operating system.
And a company called Indrema is announcing it is working with CollabNet â€” a middleman that brings programmers and companies with software projects together â€” to create a quick stable of open-source games for its new $299 gaming and entertainment console. It hopes marketing the console with dozens of games next year will help it snatch a piece of the market from leaders Sony, Sega and Nintendo.
``It's a huge opportunity that was not available before open-source, which became the obvious missing link for something I've been waiting to do for five years,'' said John Gildred, chief executive of Indrema, based in Alameda, Calif.
Linux, developed by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, also is being praised for its flexibility and propensity not to crash.
But, for all its hype, there's very little chance consumers in the next few years will even know they're using a device running on its operating system.
Instructions to the system require people to memorize and type in commands, similar to the DOS software that preceded Windows, forcing companies to hide it behind their own applications or in set-top entertainment boxes.
``I wouldn't give Linux to my grandmother just yet,'' said David L. Sifry, chief technology officer at Linuxcare, which is providing Linux consulting and support to HP, IBM and others. ``In my opinion, it's still not ready yet. Will it get there? Yes â€” and very soon.''
Indeed, a team of former Apple executives were expected to show off ``Eazel,'' a Linux browser that might be adapted to desktop uses in coming months.
Other Linux applications are quickly coming to market. While growing, that number pales against the number of applications available for Windows.
Still, Linux has become one of the biggest threats to Microsoft in the lucrative consumer marketplace and has attracted such investors as Intel Corp., the biggest computer chip-maker, who have noted the growing demand and Microsoft's waning influence because of its continuing antitrust case, analysts say.
``When LinuxWorld Conference & Expo first started, people came to find out what Linux was all about,'' said Charlie Greco, chief executive of IDG World Expo, which is sponsoring the event. ``Now people come to get a glimpse of the future.''