Linux: Tomorrow's Windows or Fad-of-the-Year?
Bill Gates' real bte noire may turn out to be not a resurgent Apple or posse of government lawyers, but an obscure Finnish computer programmer named Linus Torvalds. In 1991, while a student at the University of Helsinki, Torvalds began work on Linux (LINN-ux), a new operating system similar to Unix. In the following years, it became an underground hit with computer geeks. Although it is more complicated to set up than the far more popular Windows and Apple operating systems, many programmers claim it is more stable—a lot less prone to crash. But one of its biggest advantages is that it's free and open. Torvalds and a loosely knit community of programmers continually update it, and anyone can download it, package and sell it and create application programs that will run on it. Still, it might have always remained a minor player, except that earlier this year, amid growing public dissatisfaction with Microsoft's near monopoly, IBM threw its support behind Linux.
The “official” Linux logo:
The penguin marches on Redmond.
Corporations—major purchasers of operating systems—have had two main problems with Linux: Since there is no "Linux Company," it has been hard to get support. And very few programs were being written for it. (That is, there were few spreadsheet, word processing and accounting programs that would run on Linux.) However, IBM is shipping its Netfinity network server computers with Linux installed alongside Windows NT. The hardware giant will offer support through a leading Linux distributor, Red Hat Software, Inc. ( www.redhat.com ). And leading chip manufacturer Intel also showed its support for Linux by making an investment in Red Hat. Hewlett-Packard and Dell too are beginning to sell machines that can run Linux.
Meanwhile, more applications are being written that will run on Linux. The Journal spoke with Errol Allahverdi, president of Appgen Business Software, Inc. ( www.appgen.com ). "We always made Unix—and later, Windows—software, which we sell through resellers. They started asking us, 'Can't you write something for Linux?' We said we could—but what would we do about support for the customers?" Appgen found its solution by getting together with Caldera, Inc. ( www.caldera.com )—a Linux distributor like Red Hat—which was willing to form a partnership with Appgen to support Linux products. Appgen now offers a suite of accounting products that run on Linux. "We found it very stable. You just can't afford downtime in mission-critical tasks, so Linux stability is a big selling point." Allahverdi said many network servers now run Linux, especially Web servers necessary for e-commerce. "I used to think it was nonsense for Microsoft to worry about competition. But not anymore."
Nevertheless, Windows remains the overwhelming favorite. And programmers have pointed out that Linux is still difficult to set up and may not make an easy transition from a server product to a desktop operating system—for the average user, Linux may turn out to be a flash in the pan. But as one IT consultant said, "Maybe Linux's popularity will scare Microsoft into making better products."
To explore the frontier
Not even the most gung-ho Linux supporters are saying Windows-based applications will disappear anytime soon—if ever. Still, the curious CPA can explore this new system. Although the adventurous can download Linux and start experimenting (see www.whatis.com , under "Linux," for details), it may be easier to buy a packaged version that includes some support. In addition to the distributors noted above, S.u.S.E ( www.suse.com ) also sells Linux. Resources for the novice and a history of Linux are available at www.linux.org .
Top 10 Technologies—Plus 5 for Tomorrow
Deciding on the top 10 technologies for CPAs has become a tradition. This year, however, the AICPA information technology (IT) committees expanded the list to cover 30 items—the top 10 issues, applications and technologies. Earlier in the year, the Journal covered issues and applications ("Y2K Tops Tech Issues List," JofA, Jan.99, page 16, and "Top 10 Technologies: The Applications," JofA, Mar.99, page 12.) Below is a discussion of the underlying top 10 technologies themselves, which serve as the basis of the applications and issues. The committees also chose five additional items that, while not yet part of any of the top 10 lists, still bear watching.
1 Communications technologies—bandwidth. If you look at the Internet as a giant plumbing system, "bandwidth" is the measure of how wide the "pipes" are. Telephone lines—ubiquitous and accessible with a low-cost modem—are the narrowest pipes. Other options—T-1 lines, ISDN and cable service—are faster but tend to be less available and more expensive. A video training session, for example, involving dozens of participants—each at a desktop computer—in different cities, requires large bandwidth to work effectively. As one top 10 conference participant explained, "The major impediment to many mobile applications today is the lack of sustainable and reliable bandwidth." As cable and other high-speed technologies become available to more people and as the big corporate players sort out who will provide the necessary hardware, bandwidth will become more plentiful.
2 Remote connectivity tools—products that keep you in touch. Today's technology is blurring the lines between office, road and home. It's more than just e-mail—one participant said he stores key information on a Web site (which can be password-protected) so, if his laptop crashes while he's on the road, he can rent another and download all the files he needs. The flipside of the coin, though, is the problem of security.
3 Portable technology—notebooks and palmtops. These small computers are getting even smaller, more powerful and less expensive. They let auditors in the field access files and do research, turning "wasted time"—a plane trip or a train commute—into productive time. As these new products are lighter than conventional laptops, CPAs increasingly may take them everywhere. "Information where and when we demand it is becoming a hallmark of professional business," said one participant.
4 Electronic authorization—the digital signature. What is the digital equivalent of "signing on the dotted line"? That is, how can you sign a piece of e-mail—or any document sent electronically—so your recipient is sure it came from you? The much-touted paperless office will require digital signatures—consider how much time and energy can be saved by employees filing amended W-4 forms, for example. A wide variety of software products are already available—see the security options that come with Microsoft's Outlook Express.
5 Electronic authentication—digital certificates. Related to the digital signature above, an electronic certificate provides a level of assurance for data sent over the Internet. One company is already marketing a digital certificate that allows doctors to securely prescribe medications over the Internet. VeriSign ( www.verisign.com ) provides certificates for CPA WebTrust.
6 Image processing. Using this technology, you could take each piece of paper in your office, scan it onto a disk and catalog it on your computer so every bit of information is always accessible. The issue here, according to one participant, is being able to index the information in each hard copy document as you scan it in—without laboriously typing in key words. Fortunately, optical character recognition (OCR) software is getting better, and this process soon will be completely automated. There's also the human factor, one committee member pointed out—too many people are still more comfortable with paper.
7 Data mining and OLAP. Data mining is searching through databases for relationships that might help in making business decisions. For example, can you find a correlation in sales figures between people who purchase golf clubs and those who purchase tennis equipment? Online analytical processing (OLAP) is the ability to extract data from a database and view them from different perspectives: A CPA could create a series of spreadsheets showing golf club and racket sales in June, over several years, and compare these figures with other sporting-goods sales at the same time. Although this information and analysis can be very useful, OLAP programs are still expensive (an estimated $2,500 for each user). However, one participant said there would be data-mining applications even for smaller firms—pulling detailed information out of Form 1040's and using the result as an aid in estate planning, for example.
8 Interconnectivity tools—ODBC, DDE, COM, CORBA. These acronyms stand for the tongue-twisting "open database connectivity," "dynamic data exchange," "component object model" and "common object request broker architecture." Basically, these refer to systems or methods of sharing database information—the communications glue between databases and applications, according to one committee member. Although these terms are relatively unfamiliar now, they'll get more attention in the coming months as companies increasingly share data across systems for e-commerce applications. Said one participant, "The time is at hand when the combination and integration of applications will be more important than any of a system's pieces."
9 Agents. An agent is a program that runs automatically without a user's having to start it. For example, the online job service Monster Board ( www.monster.com ) allows users to enter the types of jobs they're looking for. Even when the users are off-line, an agent scans the Monster Board job database daily and sends an e-mail when it finds a job matching the user's criteria. In the future, "audit agents" may become a part of accounting software, allowing for "continuous audits."
10 Database technologies. How do you organize and manage databases, particularly the enormous repositories that large companies have? A specific issue for CPAs is how to audit and maintain the integrity of all this information. One participant said database technologies could be part of a decision support system—an application that analyzes business data for a company's decision makers. However, such systems require superior project management and a lot of money. A related issue is data mining (see item 7 ).
Five on the horizon
The committee members identified these five technologies as up-and-coming. Although these are not yet making a big impact on CPAs, many believe they will in the future.
1 Voice and speech systems—voice applications. These involve getting rid of your keyboard and talking to your computer. Applications are becoming more sophisticated, but many participants felt they were not yet far enough along for widespread use. As these systems develop, the big change could be in practice management—secretaries and administrative assistants may become obsolete.
2 Smart cards. They look like credit cards but have embedded chips that contain personal information—your medical history and your bank account, for example. They can be used to transfer money, in the same way as an ATM card, but also to facilitate the transfer of business and financial information between a CPA and a client. Pay phones in some European countries accept smart cards, but they have not caught on yet in the United States. Participants split widely on their use—some were excited about them, but others dismissed the cards as a solution in search of a problem or "technology's equivalent to the Susan B. Anthony dollar."
3 Extensible markup language (XML). XML is the smarter sibling of HTML, the language of the Internet. It defines each piece of data, thus allowing information to be widely shared across all platforms. The implications of XML are enormous. For details, see "The XML Files".
4 Knowledge systems and knowledge management. In a firm or company that has huge amounts of information, how do you make sure everyone in the organization knows what is available and how to get it? The key is knowledge management, and that means having the right software as well as a thoughtful, logical organization of data. Lotus Notes and Microsoft's Exchange are two products that can help an organization manage information.
5 Continuous auditing. The title describes it—a system that is always auditing a company's statements. Companies could discover irregularities almost instantly—not at the end of the year when the problem has become a nightmare. Of course, continuous auditing requires a sophisticated system with the right programs and excellent controls. Nevertheless, one participant said the only question was when continuous auditing would become a reality, not if .
Beyond the basics