Dell invests in Linux-for-the-masses company

The PC maker puts money into Eazel and will ship its software on Linux desktop and laptop computers in a revenue-sharing deal.

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Dell Computer has invested in Eazel, a company devoted to making Linux easier for average computer users, and will include its software on Linux desktop and laptop computers.

As part of the deal announced Thursday, Dell and Mountain View, Calif.-based Eazel will share revenue from customers who sign up for Eazel's services, said Brian Croll, Eazel's vice president for marketing. Further terms of the deal, including the amount of the investment, weren't disclosed.

Dell, once a staunch ally of Microsoft, has been moving gradually toward embracing open-source Linux as one of its three "strategic" operating systems, along with Windows and Novell NetWare. The move is a shot in the arm for Linux in general and for Eazel in particular.

"A distribution partner is key for us to reach the wide audience for Nautilus and Eazel services. This is the first big one to get us on the board here," Croll said.

Round Rock, Texas-based Dell already sells Linux laptops, desktops and servers. The Eazel software will be preloaded on Dell computers when the testing phase of the software is complete.

The news isn't a complete surprise. In an interview in August, chief executive Michael Dell said his company was in talks with Eazel as a way to make using Linux easier.

Nautilus, Eazel's file management software, is a key part of the company's effort to make Linux more user-friendly. Eazel founders include designers of the original Apple Macintosh user interface.

Linux already ships with file manager software, but Nautilus adds other features such as one that lets people view the contents of computer files. Eventually, Eazel hopes Nautilus will essentially become the user interface for Linux.

The Eazel software shipping with Dell computers will include a free, 30-day subscription to Eazel services, Croll said. Currently, the services include updating system software and offering online storage. Later, more sophisticated services, such as backup and storage of system snapshots, will be added.

Eazel is in discussions with other major PC sellers, Croll said.

"Our goal is to make Nautilus as widely available as humanly possible," Croll said. "We are certainly talking to just about everybody."

Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt suspects the Dell deal won't be the last. "For Eazel to be successful, it needs to have other preload" deals with PC makers.

Eazel hopes its products will appeal to people with ordinary desktop computers at home and at work. The company is not aiming its software at the beefier servers that have been the most popular spot for Linux.

Eazel is built atop the Gnome desktop user interface. Gnome and the competing KDE are the two prevailing software packages for putting a friendly graphical face atop Linux.

Eazel's online services compete with a similar effort at Red Hat, the 800-pound gorilla of Linux software. Red Hat version 7.0, which debuted in September, was the first edition to include the Red Hat Network online update service. In addition, Eazel is taking on Helix Code, which is working on a software-updating tool called Red Carpet.

Dell Ventures, the investment arm that gave its funding to Eazel, often takes investments in companies that later form strategic partnerships with Dell.

Dell Ventures, for instance, was an early investor in Ariba, said Terry Klein, Dell's VP of online business with corporate and institutional customers, which is working with Dell on various electronic marketplace initiatives.

Dell Ventures has also taken a stake in WebMethods, a software developer which makes a business-to-business package that effectively makes it easier to link computers to XML exchanges. Dell announced that it will bundle WebMethods' software on select servers.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.