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Caldera eases Linux onto the desktop

The company preps a new consumer-friendly desktop version of OpenLinux that lets people run the upstart operating system without ever seeing a confusing interface.

Caldera Systems will introduce a consumer-friendly desktop version of OpenLinux next Monday that lets users install and run the upstart operating system without ever seeing a confusing command line interface.

Historically, Linux has largely appeared as server software, but OpenLinux 2.2 is an attempt to reach an increasingly large group of people who want to try out the relatively new operating system.

More than half of Linux sales now are to people with no Linux or Unix experience, said Caldera Systems chief executive Ransome Love.

"We have a real alternative to Windows now," added Lynn Nielson, Caldera's development director, acknowledging that one problem has been the lack of a good graphical installation routine for Linux.

But there's more to winning over mainstream users than a polished installation routine and a graphical user interface, cautioned Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at International Data Corporation. While smooth installation is necessary, compatibility with Microsoft's dominant office software such as Word and Excel may also be vital.

"People seldom buy an operating system just to look at it," Kusnetzky said.

Caldera Systems will be the first major distributor to have a shipping product using the new 2.2.x version of the Linux kernel. It's an interesting development in light of the fact that Caldera is known for its relatively conservative stance with regard to upgrading core technology.

Caldera, for example, was the last of the major distributors to update another core software component from the older libc5 to the prevailing glibc2. While OpenLinux 2.2 will use glibc2, users will be able to continue to use libc5 and switch whenever they feel comfortable, Nielson said.

The version illustrates a new trend among Linux distributors toward selling different versions of Linux aimed at different markets. Caldera, like Red Hat and Pacific HiTech, will offer server-specific versions of Linux that trade off bells and whistles for maximum performance and server software.

Corel, too, plans to get into the Linux game with an easy-to-use, consumer-specific version of Linux. Meanwhile, OpenLinux 2.2 will ship with Corel WordPerfect 8 and with StarDivision's StarOffice software, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet, graphics, and database software.

As previously reported, OpenLinux 2.2 comes with a new installation routine called Lizard, short for Linux Wizard.

The installation routine can be run from Windows. The package uses PowerQuest's PartitionMagic software to create new disk partitions without destroying any data on the existing Windows system. The software also allows users to back out if they want, uninstalling Linux and restoring their old partition setup, Nielson said.

During installation, the software autodetects hardware and looks for a server to provide network connection information. Using KDE graphical user interface technology on top of the X Windows system, OpenLinux also lets users choose between several flavors of user interface, including Windows, Mac OS, or BeOS.

Not all these features are new or unique to Linux. Red Hat, for example, offers its own partitioning software, a quasi-graphical installation procedure, hardware autodetection, and a control panel system of configuring the system. And much Linux software is freely downloadable in any case.

Microsoft's dominance a hurdle
Separately, although StarOffice and WordPerfect have good abilities to import Microsoft Word files, it's pretty hard to achieve 100 percent compatibility, Kusnetzky said. "Microsoft is known for changing the format of things as soon as people get too close," he said.

Microsoft Word claims 95 percent market share, so compatibility is a big issue, Kusnetzky added. Microsoft Excel has 87 percent market share for spreadsheets, and Microsoft Access 83 percent for personal databases, he said.

"The most popular complete suite is Microsoft Office. It has such an overwhelmingly dominant share of the market that it's kind of hard for anybody to compete with it," he said.

However, Caldera's Linux distribution could be good for some areas where that compatibility isn't so important, such as home systems, set-top boxes, or businesses needing limited-function computers.