On Tuesday at LinuxWorld 2000, two messages were repeated by software designers, hardware makers and operating system gurus alike -- Linux does have a bright future, but it needs improved ease of use before widespread movement into the SOHO (small office-home office) or consumer markets occurs.
With a variety of vendors trying to make open-source operating systems easy to use, it's questionable which, if any, company will lead the race to take Linux to the desktop. There also is the question of how many of the startups in the race will make money, considering that they are inclined, as part of the open-source movement, to give products away.
Contenders for the lead seem to be emerging, with top vendors offering support.
One possible candidate appears to be Mountain View, California-based Eazel Inc., a member of the newly formed GNOME (GNU Network Object Modeling Environment) Foundation, which stirred up a buzz at LinuxWorld. Eazel takes some of the principles and guidelines established by the tech-enlightened GNOME leaders to make using Linux on a PC easier than might have been previously imagined. Founded by members of the original Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh team, Eazel uses the file managing system Nautilus along with several Internet applications to try and make Linux-based systems more user friendly.
The GNOME project began three years ago as an effort to create a forum for developers working on Linux and other Unix-like operating systems. By relying on an open-source model, the network of developers can collaborate on the creation, modification, reduction of size and distribution of code. Not surprisingly, a number of companies working to develop free software soon joined in, pushing the GNOME group to the forefront of the open-source market.
During a Tuesday press conference, vendors agreed to serve as either contributors or advisors to the GNOME Foundation -- the direction arm of the project aimed toward advancing the adoption of the GNOME desktop environment. Executives from IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Compaq Computer Corp., among others, have already pledged their support to the project, and some of those major vendors also said they like what Eazel is doing.
Eazel took the open-sourced principles associated with GNOME and wrote the code for a graphical shell intended to make a Linux-based OS look and feel similar to Windows. In the initial release of the Eazel software, due out by the end of September, a suite of services should be available, including file management applications, Web-based file storage and an early version of a software catalog. As the project progresses, Eazel hopes to provide users with an extensive set of automated file backup and file synchronization functions, in addition to an expanded version of the software catalog.
File management and Internet-related applications will be the early focus of the project, said Andy Hertzfeld, co-founder and "Software Wizard" at Eazel. While the applications still need fine tuning, Hertzfeld portrayed that as an advantage, not a hindrance.
"Through open-sourcing, we want to make something that is not just a standard, but instead something that gets better everyday," he said.
The Eazel product is designed to sit on top of a number of open-source operating systems and help to make the average user's experience with Linux more enjoyable. In particular, file management tools are viewed as highly desirable for consumers. With that in mind, Eazel sought to capture a portion of the open-sourced market that GNOME might not have paid enough attention to.
"GNOME has always lacked a good file manager," an Eazel spokesman said.
The Eazel code is currently available to anyone who wants to install it on desktop computers. However, only a relatively small group of hackers and programmers have done so. That's largely due to how difficult it is to install Nautilus and the source code. One programmer from Eazel said that installation would break a "vanilla machine."
Both Compaq and Dell Computer Corp. have shown interest in the GNOME project and Eazel's improvement of the user-interface. The two companies voiced plans to use a later version of Eazel on their open-source based machines.
"We like Eazel," Gary Campbell, vice president and chief technical officer for Compaq, said Tuesday. "For us, it is a natural extension of Linux on the desktop."
While nothing has been finalized yet, Campbell said that customer demand has pushed the use of Linux in the past, and that similar demand in the desktop and laptop markets could make a more complete version of the Eazel user interface attractive.
Three major components are missing in the open-source interface that will need to appear before the average user will be comfortable with Linux on a desktop, said Michael Massetti, a marketing director for Dell. The graphical user interface, improved hardware and more applications all are needed, he said.
In the case of the user-interface, Massetti said that the Eazel product is a night-and-day difference compared to what hackers currently use. He supports the Eazel project and said that Dell will use the product on its machines when an improved version comes to fruition.
While Dell shied away from joining the GNOME Foundation, Massetti confirmed his company's interest in the open-source field.
"One of our goals is to support GNOME," he said. He would not, however, say exactly when Dell plans to give public support to the foundation.
Eazel representatives said that current business models have yet to be finalized but that money may come from selling a variety of services to users. If the software comes pre-installed on Compaq and Dell machines, it could help Eazel make a large leap toward profit. The company said that some services could include file storage and other Internet-related file management services.
The final release of the user interface is scheduled for January of next year.
While Eazel focuses primarily on system maintenance and file management, Helix Code Inc. -- one of the major players in the GNOME projects -- has already made a desktop product with a networked mailer, calendar and address book. Helix Code, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, did the majority of work on the creation and maintenance of the Bonobo component model, which is the object architecture that serves as the foundation for all GNOME-based applications.
Helix Code this week announced the release of Helix GNOME 1.0, which will be the default desktop on the Turbolinux operation system, as well as being bundled on a line of IBM ThinkPads. Additionally, Sun announced that it will use GNOME 2.0 as the future desktop for its Solaris operating environment. GNOME 2.0 should be out by the middle of next year with an improved user environment, a free office suite and browser technology from the Mozilla project.
With support for Linux on desktops continuing to pick up steam, it's possible that LinuxWorld 2001 will present the message that the OS has indeed arrived in the SOHO and consumer markets.
Eazel, based in Mountain View, California, can be reached at http://www.eazel.com. Helix Code, in Cambridge Massachusetts, can be reached at http://www.helixcode.com/. GNOME can be reached at http:/www.gnome.org/.