Start-up's Apps Make Desktop Linux Easier

In July, on Utah's Pioneer Day, Kerry Cox told his wife that he felt like one of the Mormon settlers in 1847, blazing trails in new territory.

"Of course, I was talking about putting Linux on the desktop, where I am like a voice in the wilderness," he explains.

Cox is the systems administrator and network engineer at KSL Television & Radio, a subsidiary of Bonneville International Corp. in Salt Lake City. His nearly 400 deadline-driven newsroom end users are demanding better desktop stability, and management is bemoaning Windows licensing costs, prompting IT to envision dramatic changes ahead, he says.

Linux is used on only 2% of all desktop PCs, compared with 92% for Windows. But Linux may get a boost on the desktop next month when Boston-based start-up Ximian Inc. releases Version 1.0 of Evolution, its open-source, Microsoft Outlook-like e-mail and calendaring software.

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XIMIAN CEO Nat Friedman (left) and co-founder Miguel de Icaza are striving to develop easy-to-use Linux desktop systems.Ximian Inc.
401 Park Drive, 3 West
Boston, Mass. 02215
(617) 236-0442

Web: www.ximian.com

Niche: Ximian offers an open-source graphical environment and application suite and management tools for Linux desktops.

Company officers:
• David Patrick, CEO
• Miquel de Icaza, CTO and co-founder
• Nat Friedman, vice president of product development and co-founder

Milestones:
• October 1999: Company founded as Helix GNOME
• March 2000: Helix GNOME 1.0 released
• January 2001: Company name changed to Ximian
• April 2001: GNOME 1.4 released

Burn money: $15 million in second-round funding from Charles River Ventures and Battery Ventures

Employees:
55

Products:
GNOME 1.4 GUI and Evolution 1.0 desktop productivity software, which ships in October, are downloadable for free. Red Carpet Express: $995 per user; Red Carpet Corporate Connect: $150 annually per user, plus a $2,500 setup charge.

Customers:
Amerada Hess, KSL Television & Radio, Zumiez and others

Partners: TurboLinux Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Red Hat Inc.

Red flags for IT:
• GNOME doesn’t have enough application support to replace Windows on the business desktop.
• Products add another operating system and set of applications to the IT support workload.

Ximian's founders hope that end users will flock to Linux on the desktop, given Version 1.4 of the company's Linux graphical user interface (GUI), which is based on the open-source GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME), along with its Red Carpet tool for automating Linux software management.
"We foresee in the near future that all our users will be on Linux with a Ximian desktop," says Cox, whose technical staff already runs GNOME.
Analyst Bill Claybrook at Boston-based Aberdeen Group Inc. says he thinks it will take a long time for nontechnical users to adopt Linux, regardless of whether it has a GUI. "The ease of use just isn't comparable yet," he says.
But Nat Friedman, vice president of product development at Ximian, claims that technical staff who prefer Linux contend with "the two-machine problem" because they almost always need Windows productivity tools. With Evolution, Linux users will be able to use a calendar, view HTML messages and create an address book in a full GUI environment, just like with Microsoft Outlook, he says. And unlike Outlook administrators, Evolution administrators will have access to the source code.
Rory Hudson, retail systems manager at Zumiez Inc., a fashion company in Everett, Wash., with 70 stores in 11 states, says he's been pleased with the beta versions of Evolution.
"It's going to improve store communications," he says. Zumiez is in the midst of replacing its in-store Unix terminals with Linux desktops running Ximian's GUI and will add Evolution when that phase is completed. "Store managers are not necessarily computer-literate," he adds, which puts a premium on easy-to-use systems.
Miquel de Icaza, Ximian's chief technology officer and co-founder, says Linux desktops will be popular as point-of-sale terminals, as they are at Zumiez. But realistically, he says, Linux GUI-based applications are going to initially find homes inside IT, where developers will use them to write programs and systems administrators will depend on them to manage Linux servers.
That jibes with Jeff Davis' experience at New York-based energy giant Amerada Hess Corp. The senior systems programmer says technical staffers, particularly younger ones, appreciate Linux with Ximian's GNOME user interface.
Like KSL's Cox, Hess says Microsoft's licensing policies have prompted a discussion within IT about broadening Linux desktop use. But, says Davis, because of the dearth of Windows-compatible productivity applications, "it means we're not anywhere near making a change."
Ximian hopes that users will turn to Sun's StarOffice application suite to round out its offering, since many key independent software vendors don't offer Linux versions of their applications. Indeed, it's a lack of software that's holding up deployment outside IT at KSL.
"I see an incursion of Linux from the tech side through the ranks," says Cox. But for now, migrating the business desktop will have to wait.

The Buzz: State of the Market
Open Questions


The Eazel Effect
Open-source advocates suffered a setback in May when Ximian competitor and GNOME developer Eazel Inc. went belly up. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company had burned through $11 million in venture capital funding and failed to raise more from investors.
Eazel targeted consumers, while Ximian seeks business users, so Eazel's departure may not affect Ximian's prospects, observers say.
The Anti-.Net
Ximian's ambitions go beyond its desktop technology. It's the first open-source company to jump on Microsoft Corp.'s .Net bandwagon, although not so much to support the initiative as to subvert it, Ximian claims. The company has launched the Mono Project, which will create open-source versions of .Net components such as the C# compiler, full class libraries and a common language runtime environment.
If the Mono Project succeeds, says Aberdeen Group analyst Bill Claybrook, Linux users will be able to run any .Net-ready application.
Claybrook argues that if Linux is going to get anywhere on the desktop, it must have access to Windows applications.
"Without Microsoft software, Linux on the desktop won't be a huge success," he says. Microsoft's .Net strategy may give Linux advocates the access they desperately need.
Open Confusion
Linux desktop users applaud its low cost of ownership and rocklike stability. However, the diversity of Linux releases creates administrative nightmares. So Ximian has included a tool called Red Carpet in in its GNOME 1.4 release. With hundreds of Linux distributions, software management "is kind of a pain," says Ximian's vice president of product development and co-founder, Nat Friedman. Red Carpet manages the different Linux releases with various applications.
Claybrook says he expects end-user problems to persist for the foreseeable future because tools like Red Carpet are few and far between. And to date, none of them works with enterprise management tools, he says.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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