NEW YORK -- After a year of extraordinary publicity for the upstart computer operating system known as Linux, investors finally get to vote on whether the touted program is a Microsoft killer, an over-hyped technology, or something in between.
Red Hat Inc. -- a fast-growing seller of Linux software -- is offering its shares to the public as early as next week in one of the year's most awaited initial public offerings. The deal, if it takes off as some analysts expect, could be the first in a string of IPOs from Linux companies.
Yet for all the anticipation, investor appetite could be curbed by the Herculean task facing the recent flurry of small companies focused on Linux: Gaining ground against the seemingly indomitable Microsoft Corp. and its ubiquitous Windows program, which runs 90 percent of the world's desktop computers.
"It's a good test of what the market interest is (in Linux)," said analyst Amy Wohl, who owns her own industry consultancy in Narberth, Pa. "Depending on how the IPO turns out, in the next month or two you're going to see more."
The Durham, N.C.-based Red Hat is selling 6 million shares, or about 9 percent of the company, to the public. If the stock prices at the high range of the company's expectation at about $12 a share, Red Hat would raise about $72 million, helping to boost spending on its Web site, marketing and other expenses.
Linux (pronounced LINN-nucks), was created in the early 1990s by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, as an alternative system for running a computer's basic functions. Torvalds released his blueprints on the Internet so volunteer programmers around the world could contribute improvements.
Today, Linux can be downloaded for free off the Web or bought in packages with technical support for as little as $30. A growing minority of corporate technology workers are embracing Linux as an adjunct -- if not an alternative -- to the Unix and Windows NT computers at the hub of networks of business machines, and on computers that run Web sites.
Users praise the system's flexibility and propensity not to crash. But it often requires people to memorize and type in commands, similar to the DOS software that preceded Windows -- daunting to everyday users. And the number of Linux-compatible software applications, while growing, pales against the number of applications available for Windows.
Linux, while fast gaining adherents, has yet to attain mass market success. Last year, sales of Linux comprised an impressive 17 percent of all "server" software, used to run networked computers, according to the International Data Corp. research firm. But Linux software comprised only 1.8 percent of desktop machines. Those figures don't include free downloads off the Internet.
"The issue is, Are organizations actually going to use Linux" as a major new business computer system, said William Peterson, an IDC analyst. "And is there a market for Linux on the desktop?"
Red Hat, by selling prepackaged software and technical support, offers an easier alternative to downloading the Linux operating system off the Internet, which could take a day or more using a conventional dial-up modem. Its distinctive packages -- emblazoned with a man donning a rakishly tilted red fedora -- are starting to pepper the desks of computer network technicians.
Red Hat says it is on the verge of turning a profit and that its IPO will enable it to embark on the next stage of its expansion.
The sale takes place in less-than-ideal market conditions, however, with several Internet IPOs recently stumbling. But it also may occur the same week as the annual Linux World trade show, which starts Monday. Analysts say they wouldn't be surprised if strong demand pushed up the initial sale price, partly due to advance buzz generated.
Even at the current price range, the sale would give Red Hat a market value of about $800 million -- though its annual revenues were just $10.8 million last year -- lifting Red Hat to the sort of phenomenal valuation that investors have bestowed upon many newly public Internet companies.
If Red Hat's IPO succeeds, another Linux company, VA Linux Systems Inc., which makes business computers pre-loaded with Linux, is expected to soon follow suit.
Multimillion dollar investments in Red Hat and other Linux makers this past year by major technology companies such as chip giant Intel Corp. and IBM Corp. are lending credibility to Linux.
Recent initiatives are pushing it into new arenas as well. BuyPogo.Com, a Silicon Valley upstart, is selling $400 Linux desktop computers while TiVo, a Sunnyvale, Calif. company, is using Linux to run its new digital TV recording device.
Microsoft, for all its market heft, could be hamstrung in counterattacking Linux because the software's license requirement flies in the face of Microsoft's strategy to jealously guard its software blueprints. Companies that license Linux are required to share any changes with others.