Walmart.com has provided the first retail outlet for LindowsOS, a Linux-based operating system for desktop computers from Microsoft Corp. rival Lindows.com Inc. Linux proponents have anxiously awaited a challenger to Windows, but some aren't sure LindowsOS is a worthy representative of its origins.
Last week, Walmart.com offered for sale eight different PCs from Microtel Computer Systems Inc. that run LindowsOS 1.1, a version of Lindows tailored specifically for the Microtel PCs. The systems use both Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) processors, ranging from an 850MHz AMD Duron to a 1.8GHz Intel Pentium 4. None of the machines featured on Walmart.com come with a monitor, and are priced between US$299 to $599, depending on the model and specifications. The Lindows machines are not available in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. retail stores.
"Lindows is an entry-level Linux OS (operating system), which fits well with Wal-Mart's customers, who are entry-level, particularly when it comes to technology," said Mark Bellamy, senior buyer at Walmart.com, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wal-Mart Stores.
Lindows.com, based in San Diego, was founded in October of 2001 by Michael Robertson, the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of MP3.com Inc. LindowsOS is an alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows that runs both Windows and Linux applications, eliminating what some analysts feel is a roadblock to widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop. Earlier this year, Microsoft sued Lindows.com for infringing upon its trademark rights, but a judge ultimately ruled that "windows" is a generic term, and allowed Lindows.com to continue using the name. "Linux had previously been off-limits unless you were a computing superstar. We've made LindowsOS simpler than Windows," said Robertson, who serves as CEO of Lindows.com. The adoption of low-cost computers from Microtel and Lindows.com will also spur people who felt they couldn't afford a computer to purchase one, or even multiple machines, he said.
Not all Windows applications will run smoothly on LindowsOS, but users will be able to view and print Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and Microsoft Powerpoint files, he said.
The operating system has used open-source software and programmers in creating a product in which some portions of the source code remain closed, and has drawn both praise and scorn as an alternative to the dominance of Windows.
What most people call Linux is actually GNU Linux, a project started by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1984 to develop a Unix-like operating system, said Bradley Kuhn, executive director of the FSF in Boston. In 1991, Linus Torvalds added the Linux kernel, or the basic core of an operating system, creating what most people refer to today as Linux.
Linux is protected under the GNU General Public License (GPL), which requires that anyone who modifies the software releases the source code to the modifications, he said.
The only portion of LindowsOS that is closed-source is code that was licensed from third parties, said Robertson. The LindowsOS installer can't be made public, since it is one of those licensed portions of LindowsOS, he said, declining to identify which company licensed that code.
While this is not a legal issue, it is an ethical one, as releasing a distribution of Linux with proprietary applications "violates the whole spirit of the free-software movement," Kuhn said. However, several companies do this, such as Caldera International Inc. and SuSE Linux AG, he said.
For LindowsOS to ever see widespread adoption by consumers, it will have to use third-party software, said David Freund, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire. "If all you can ever do with it is (use) pure open-source code, it limits the commercial effectiveness" of Lindows, he said.
The FSF does have some criticism of the language in the end-user license agreement in place for LindowsOS, said Kuhn. Language in the agreement prohibits the modification and distribution of the software, terms that are incompatible with the GPL, under which the original distributions of Linux from which LindowsOS is derived are covered, he said.
The FSF has been working with Lindows.com on this issue, but had been unable to work out a solution before Lindows.com announced the Walmart.com/Microtel deal. This surprised the FSF, which remains hopeful that the issue can be resolved, said Kuhn.
Earlier this year, Walmart.com, based in Brisbane, California, began offering Microtel PCs shipped without a preinstalled operating system, which generated "tremendous" interest and feedback from consumers, said Bellamy, who declined to provide specific sales figures.
The online retailer then decided to take the further step of selling PCs with a version of Linux, entering into a partnership with Microtel to select a Linux distribution for Microtel machines. The companies chose the LindowsOS because of its emphasis on low-cost technology for average users, said Bellamy.
Microtel Vice President Rich Hindman agreed, adding that the ability of Lindows to read files from Microsoft applications further influenced their choice.
Consumers who purchase a LindowsOS machine through Walmart.com will be offered three applications from Lindows.com's Click-N-Run library, which contains over 1,300 different applications for use on Lindows.com, including OpenOffice.org, an open-source version of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice; GIMP (graphic image manipulation program), which is similar to Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop, and GNUCash, a personal finance application that can import Quicken files. For $99 a year, users can have access to the entire library of applications.
What's intriguing about Lindows.com as a business model is this recurring membership fee, said Illuminata's Freund. "In a down economy with reduced IT spending, this model will be the envy of many software companies," he said.
Basic support will be handled through Microtel. More detailed software problems will be resolved through a conference call with a Lindows.com support representative, the user and the Microtel support representative, said Hindman. Users can also e-mail or search Lindows.com for answers to more complex support questions, he said.