The old African proverb claims that "When elephants fight, the ants suffer." But when one of the elephants is battling on behalf of the ants, things may turn out differently.

That, at least, is the situation for up-and-coming operating system Linux. Enterprise deployment of the operating system (OS) is old news. Less visible have been the growing numbers of Linux-based consumer PCs. No more.

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) recently began Internet sales of a new line of PCs loaded with a flavor of Linux designed by Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:SUNW) called the Java Desktop System. The days of the open source OS's status as a programmers-only computing environment must be gone for good, since the people shopping for $400 computers in my neighborhood Wal-Mart don't look like the kind of folks who write code for fun.

The grassroots challenge to Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) pre-eminent Windows OS will likely be savored by the Libertarian-leaning, worldwide Linux community, even though the software is coming from tech giant Sun, rather than one of the scores of free, downloadable Linux distributions. These Microtel machines will also come bundled with StarOffice, a Linux production suite featuring word processing, spreadsheet, and other software.

But Wal-Mart and Linux are a long way from going steady. Like that aggravating and popular flirt back in high school, Wal-Mart continues to play the field. It sells plenty of Windows-based computers, by manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and Gateway (NYSE:GTW) affiliate eMachines, not to mention other Linux-based units running Lycoris, Linare, and Redmond gadfly Lindows. And the machines in the Linux-driven Microtel line feature chips from both Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD).

Of course, the entire Linux scene is still cramped by the SCO Group's (NASDAQ:SCOX) increasingly futile effort to extract a user fee from everyone running the OS. With Wal-Mart stepping deeper into the fray, things are getting much more interesting.

Check out the Foolish Linux scene in the Fool's Linux User's Group discussion board.

Fool contributor Seth Jayson is considering trying another Linux installation on one of his homely home-builts. He has no stake in any company mentioned above. View his Fool profile here.