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Linux PC maker plans e-mail service

Linare, a seller of cheap Linux PCs, plans to offer a free e-mail service for fans of the open-source operating system.

Linare, newly embarked as a seller of cheap Linux PCs, will offer an e-mail service for fans of the open-source operating system, the company plans to announce on Monday.

The company plans to begin offering the e-mail service this week to those who want an e-mail address that ends in "@linux.net," Linare CEO Soma Sundaram said. The Web-based e-mail service with 6MB of storage space will be free; two other options, with features such as more storage space or spam blocking, will cost $1.67 or $2.33 per month.

Linare has grander ambitions for the Linux.net Web site, though. In a second phase, scheduled to debut in early 2004, it will expand the site so that it will become a resource to help users, developers and companies collaborate better, Sundaram said.

The company signed a long-term lease to the Linux.net domain name from Fred N. van Kempen, who also sold the Linux.com domain name in 1999 to the company now known as VA Software. Sundaram declined to disclose financial terms of the lease.

The Web site and e-mail plan marks a significant expansion of Linare's efforts to capitalize on the growing use of Linux. The Redmond, Wash.-based company began selling its $20 Linare Linux desktop software package in September and its $199 Linux PC last week.

The move also harks back to the days of dot-com mania, when companies hoped to profit from Internet sites based around popular ideas.

"It does smack of some of that late-1990s marketing," IDC analyst Roger Kay said of the plan.

But the service could be popular with those who want to show their Linux loyalties, Kay added. "This is, in some ways, capitalizing on a kind of antiestablishment mentality--that there are people out there who would put bumper stickers on that would proclaim their status against the establishment," he said.

In addition, selling e-mail addresses to enthusiasts has been tried by better-known companies--notably, Apple Computer.

Apple's .Mac e-mail service was free, initially, but the company was able to quickly sign up 200,000 customers for the service when it shifted from free to paid subscriptions last year. However, it's not clear how many subscribers the Mac maker has now or how many will renew, given that the initial annual fee, $49, has been raised to $99.

While many selling Linux computers today are offering higher-powered servers, Linare is aiming for the consumer market--the very area in which Microsoft is most powerful.

Linare began selling its Linux PCs online last week, a few weeks later than initially planned. It is angling for college students or homes needing a second PC. Later, it plans to sign up better-recognized sales partners, which will install Linare's software on their PCs.

Linare's software largely is based on the work of individuals and companies in the open-source programming community. However, the company is working to avoid the perception that it's a parasite sponging off others' labor. It is working on a profit-sharing plan that will return some of its money to individual Linux contributors, Sundaram said.