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Linux becomes the pizza platform

Next time you buy a pizza at Little Caesars, the clerk at the cash register might well be using a Linux computer.

Next time you buy a pizza at Little Caesars, the clerk at the cash register might well be using a Linux computer.

MaxSpeed makes hardware that lets companies plug numerous sets of keyboards, pointing devices and monitors into a single Linux server. The hardware, which is being used at many florist shops, Little Caesars and others, is geared for use at chain stores that have numerous outlets.

The 65-person company, founded in 1988 and based in Palo Alto, Calif., sells networked cash registers called "point-of-sale" terminals to stores such as Goodyear Tire, CVS Drugstores and Harley-Davidson. The company is moving its product line to Linux-based systems. Within a year, half the company's business will be Linux, predicted chief executive Wei Ching.

"We definitely think Linux is the wave of the future," Ching said. Apparently investors agree: Joe Fogg III, chief executive of Westbury Equity Partners and former head of investment banking at Morgan Stanley, secured $14 million for MaxSpeed in February through Westbury. Fogg is a member of MaxSpeed's board.

Linux, an operating system cloned from Unix, is spreading across all sorts of computer markets. Its Unix roots, which allow many users to tap into a single server, make it a natural pick for MaxSpeed. Corporate and private investors have been flocking to Linux companies, though most don't expect to be profitable for some time and stock for publicly traded Linux companies has been slipping.

In the case of local outlets, Linux often competes with Santa Cruz Operation's UnixWare, a version of Unix that runs on comparatively inexpensive Intel servers. SCO, despite some earlier shunning of Linux, is gradually embracing the operating system.

Despite the buzz around Linux, MaxSpeed won't have an easy time, said International Data Corp. analyst Eileen O'Brian. "There's nothing wrong with it from a technical standpoint," she said. "My concern is the company may not have the wherewithal and momentum to market it."

MaxSpeed is going up against better established companies in the "thin client" market--notably Wyse, which sold more than 60 percent of thin clients in 1999, and IBM. MaxSpeed in 1999 "was not a very active player."

A year ago, MaxSpeed introduced a card in 1999 that lets four people use the same Linux server. The card has four ports for network cables that lead to a box about the size of a credit card an inch thick.

The company also sells a system that lets many of these cards be plugged into a single system. In one florist shop, 50 terminals connect to one Linux computer, though the typical number is usually between 10 and 20.

Linux Center In February, MaxSpeed released a $149 card that lets two people use the same Linux system, said chief technology officer Dave McAllister, a former SGI Linux expert. MaxSpeed hopes the device will be popular with home computer users--for example, in multiplayer games.

The more computing-intensive the task, the fewer people can use the computer. For a low-stress task such as a cash register, dozens can use a single server. "But if someone fires up 27 copies of Star Office, it's going to eat your system," McAllister said.

For now, Linux is only modestly used on desktop computers, but MaxSpeed believes today's 4 percent penetration could expand to 30 percent in the next five years, McAllister said.

The two-user MaxSpeed card, called +One, works with Red Hat Linux but requires a special driver from MaxSpeed. Support for other versions, including TurboLinux, Mandrake, Caldera Systems and SuSE, is coming.