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Earthlink founder Sky Dayton likes to tell the story of how it took him 80 hours to log onto the Internet the first time back in 1993. Now, when someone buys a computer, the modem and connection software come preloaded. Just plug in the cable, and it will locate the connection and configure itself.
Other features have gotten easier as well. In fact Windows has gotten so good with its plug-n-play that few users today even know how to edit the registry or resolve a basic conflict.
While Windows is good for untrained users, for those who want to get in under the hood and tinker with the source code, there is Linux.
Michael Robertson, founder of mp3.com, is tackling that problem with his new company, Lindows, Inc. Other Linux vendors have strong server offerings. Lindows goes straight for the users, offering a desktop version of Linux that installs in 10 minutes and also makes it easy for the untrained to download and install the applications they need.
Lindows is a privately held company based in San Diego. It develops and markets LindowsOS, a version of Debian Linux. Unlike Red Hat or SuSE, which offer users a choice of GUIs, Lindows comes with just the KDE desktop. If the user is sophisticated enough to know the difference between the KDE and Gnome desktops, and have a preference for Gnome, LindowsOS is not for them. But for someone who wants a low-cost, easy-to-use alternative to Windows or MacIntosh OSX, LindowsOS can get them up and running much faster.
The OS comes in two versions -- one for a desktop and one for a laptop. Customers can buy it on CD or download it from the Lindows website. A new feature, launched on March 4, uses a BitTorrent Peer-to-Peer (P2P) download system, which splits the 500MB OS into about 1,000 pieces and downloads in about a fifth of the time that the usual FTP download takes. If the customer uses the P2P download, Lindows charges the customer half the usual price for the OS. The company also has an educational license which allows an unlimited numbers of users.
The other way to get LindowsOS is pre-installed on a desktop, laptop or hard drive. Lindows sells webstations. Walmart even has six Microtel PC running Lindows. PC Club has Lindows laptops. And Seagate offers the OS preloaded on some drives at no additional cost.
Getting Down to Business
Most users, however, dont care what operating system they use. What they want is applications.
''Plenty of applications run on Linux,'' says Mike Silver, a vice president at industry analyst giant Gartner, Inc., based in Stamford, Ct. ''The question is do they have the one I need with the functions I need.''
Here, again, Lindows makes it easier.
Now, a developer knows that there are more than 77,000 open source projects hosted on the SourceForge.net site, plus plenty of other free software over at the KOffice and KDE sites. But most users don't want to prowl around these places trying to decipher what they might need.
Lindows approach is to ship its OS with just the most essential software that most users will need. This includes a browser/email (Mozilla), an office suite (OpenOffice), instant messaging (Gaim) and some games and multimedia players.
To further simplify matters, the software is called by its generic name. For example the desktop icon for browser says ''browser'' not ''Mozilla 1.6''. The CD Player is entitled just that, and so on.
The preloaded applications are enough for most people to get started, but there is plenty more software available.
Clicking an icon on the desktop takes the user to the Lindows Click-N-Run warehouse, where more than 1,800 applications await. These are all tested for interoperability with the LindowsOS. Most of the programs are free, but there also is some commercial software, generally at significantly below list price. One click both downloads the application and installs it without further user interaction.
Continue on to the next page to find out who Lindows is right for...
So, who should buy Lindows?
To begin with, that question is tied up in the whole question of using any form of Linux on the desktop. This again goes back to the availability of Linux applications, which are at nowhere near the level of Windows applications yet. In some cases, there is an adequate open source alternative to Windows applications, but not always.
''Lindows or Linux makes sense where users don't have a lot of Windows applications,'' says Silver. ''But where users have a specific application list they use, you have to make sure it will work on a new platform.''
Then there is the question of how the desktop is to be used and supported.
For individual users or those who need limited support, LindowsOS works well. This is why Lindows is directing its efforts at schools and universities -- for students in the classroom. It is also a good option for installations, such as internet terminals in libraries, or for job or tourist information kiosks which have very limited functions.
Last year, for example, the province of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada installed LindowsOS webstations at four Regional Community Access Program centers to provide citizens with Internet access.
But this still might not be the best choice as part of a distributed network. For that, you need to go with enterprise-class software, which provides the necessary customization and support functions needed in a centrally managed setting