Whither Lindows?

by Doc Searls

Nobody can stay on top of everything. That's why it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I got a note from a colleague that consisted entirely of this: "Lindows: scoundrels or fools?" I didn't know what he was talking about. Then somebody else pointed me to an AP report that Microsoft had sued Lindows for having a name that rhymed too closely with Windows. This person annotated the story by giving it the subject, "suicidal or dumb?"

Now I was up to four choice characterizations: scoundrels, fools, suicidal and dumb. And it wasn't even clear if the labels were meant to apply to Lindows, Windows, Microsoft or all four -- since Lindows is the name of both the company and its only product, an OS that runs both Linux and Windows.

(By the way, if we didn't use the target tag for that Windows link in the last paragraph, the page would trap you there by disabling your back button. How metaphorical is that?)

Lindows is the creation of Michael Robertson, the cofounder and former CEO of MP3.com, which is now part of Vivendi Universal. About the lawsuit, Robertson told the Wall Street Journal, "There's not a single person, perhaps outside of the 600 attorneys that work for Microsoft, who can say with a straight face that people will confuse" Lindows with Windows. The Journal also observes that, while Microsoft employs about 600 people in its law and corporate affairs unit, not all of them are lawyers. This probably does not reassure Mr. Robertson, although there could hardly be more sure-catch lawsuit-bait than his company's name and mission.

About the latter he says this:

Many of you have taken the time to write me about my new venture Lindows.com; and I've tried my best to personally respond. The most common question asked is, "Why are you doing Lindows.com ?" The answer is straightforward -- the world needs it, the technology industry needs it, computer owners need it. What is 'it' you ask? Choice. Putting another choice on the shelf for consumers is the ultimate tonic for high prices, restrictive licenses and intrusive security measures. The power to choose means consumers will be in the drivers seat and not beholden to the policies of one company.

Sounds fine, except for that "consumer" label, which we rarely hear in Linux circles (where the default would be "users" or "customers"). Still, these are honorable motivations, and perhaps commercially viable ones as well.

Robertson goes on to say that LindowsOS is a Linux-based operating system with a "Windows Compatibility Module". I assume this means he's talking about something that involves WINE, but he doesn't say. Nor does anything else on the site. The closest thing to a technical section is an FAQ that tells us LindowsOS will cost $99 and run on Pentium-class hardware with at least 64MB RAM and 1GB disk space.

Right now LindowsOS is vaporware. But the company does have a highly entrepreneurial CEO. I think they have some potential in the low-end hardware market if they can make everything work. Let's face it: Linux-based thin clients haven't set the world on fire. Not yet, anyway. Maybe running Windows apps natively would be the right gas for that job. Hardware has gotten cheaper, but while Moore's law continues to drive up performance, there's a price floor that gets a lot lower when you subtract the rising cost of Windows, especially considering XP's one-OS-per-machine authentication scheme.

The question for me is, can they do it alone? Clearly Lindows is a closed-source company building a product with open source code and tools. Do they really need to close the source? Do they actually plan to? I don't see them listed as an exhibitor at LinuxWorld, which would make sense if they wanted to join the community. Seems to me they could use a few more eyes to make their bugs shallower. It's doing the job for Apple with Darwin, and attracting serious geeks in the process.

So I don't know. In the absence of more information, the choice still defaults to the original four. What do the rest of ya'll think?

email: doc@ssc.com

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