In Massachussetts works Todd Weiss, for IDG's Computerworld magazine in Framingham. His Christmas feature is a back story of Linux, perhaps the only real contender for Microsoft's operating system crown.

A decade ago, Linux was just a twinkle in the eye of its inventor, Linus Torvalds, a college student who wanted to create a better operating system for his own use. Today, Linux is gaining a growing share of the server market, expanding its presence in science and education and slowly making its way into mission-critical business computing.

Once just a cult operating system, used by researchers, scientists and students because it could be freely modified to fit their needs, Linux is increasingly being seen as a realistic option for business computing. Among its business benefits is that same flexibility, which lets developers make changes ranging from altering core code to fit corporate needs to modifying its on-screen appearance to satisfy users.

So, where does Linux stand today? And what's still to come?

In 1999, Microsoft's Windows accounted for 38 percent of server operating system shipments, compared with 24 percent for Linux, according to research group IDC. Last year, Windows' share increased to 42 percent and Linux's increased to 27 percent, both at the expense of Unix, Novell's NetWare and others. Linux is the fastest-growing server operating system in terms of shipments, according to IDC.

Linux use soared during the dotcom frenzy in the late 1990s, as start-ups with big dreams needed to get online quickly and reliably. Because Linux was either free or sold by companies that added their own features, support, manuals and simplified install routines, it was a perfect web server platform for start-ups that needed high-tech capabilities at low cost.

Linux start-ups like Red Hat and Turbolinux took off, fuelling what became a torrent of reliable, robust and relatively cheap Linux e-commerce deployments.

Meanwhile, Linux supporters believed there was still more in Linux's future than the three primary uses that were established at that point: for web servers, file servers and print servers.

Backing for that view arrived in a big way when IBM announced a $1bn investment this year for the continued development of the operating system. Compaq and HP have also been strong Linux advocates, offering the operating system on wide segments of their server product lines. Such developments have given Linux wider credibility in the marketplace among IT decision-makers.

More Business Use

An increasing number of companies have adopted Linux for their core operations. Linux is also being increasingly used in high-performance scientific and research projects, including supercomputer clusters for oil and gas exploration, as well as medical and drug research.

A continuing criticism of Linux is that there's a shortage of business applications for it. While Microsoft Office isn't available, there are similar applications, such as Corel's WordPerfect, Applix's Applixware Office and Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite.

Linux's future got a lift in January when the vendor-funded Open Source Development Lab opened in Oregon. The lab was established to help prepare Linux for expanded high-performance corporate data centre use by working to fulfil key needs, such as improving the scalability of Linux to 16 processors or more, up from the four to eight possible today.

Last January, Torvalds released the long-awaited Version 2.4 kernel for Linux, adding a host of new features, including support for additional processors and a built-in logical volume manager to let all hard drives be seen as one seamless drive. Also included were power management and USB support improvements.

Because there are different brands of Linux, from vendors such as Caldera, MandrakeSoft and SuSE, the Linux Standard Base was formed last year to create compatibility standards to ensure that applications will be able to run on any distribution.