Lindows--low cost, but a changed tune

The maker of a Linux-based OS designed to run Windows programs offers PC makers a cheap licensing plan but tones down Windows-compatibility claims.

Matthew Broersma Special to CNET News
3 min read
Lindows.com, maker of a Linux-based operating system originally designed to run popular Windows programs, is offering PC makers a flat-rate licensing plan for its OS, in contrast to the per-unit fees charged by Microsoft and others.

On Monday, the company launched its Builder program, which offers system builders technical support, testing tools, LindowsOS certification eligibility and a software library for $500 per month.

The move could lead to low-priced consumer computers because manufacturers could install the Windows alternative on any number of systems for one fee, potentially enjoying huge savings over Microsoft's plan and other traditional licensing arrangements.

"This will be a huge saving for computer assemblers in both licensing and logistical costs, which will ultimately make them more profitable and deliver savings to their customers as well," Lindows.com Chief Executive Michael Robertson said in a statement.

At the same time, though, the company has quietly toned down its claims to Windows compatibility, casting some doubt on the viability of Lindows as an option to Microsoft's omnipresent OS.

With its flat-rate license, Lindows.com is targeting unbranded, or "white box," PC makers who sell machines for rock-bottom prices, often through mass-market retailers. Such machines make up 58 percent of the worldwide PC market, according to a recent IDC study, taking up some of the slack left by the continued slump in mainstream PC sales.

Besides the ability to sell PCs for an even lower price than before, LindowsOS also offers freedom from Microsoft's draconian restrictions on how its software must be presented.

LindowsOS is based on a distribution of Linux, which is covered by a license that requires it to be made freely available for modification and redistribution. However, a system designer who used an unlicensed version of LindowsOS would not be able to use Lindows.com's logo or join the LindowsOS certification program and would receive no technical support.

Lindows.com has already won a significant distribution deal in the United States with Wal-Mart, which is selling LindowsOS-based PCs from Microtel Computer Systems on the Wal-Mart Web site. "This type of program is not only easy and effective, it is a catalyst for change in the computer industry," Microtel Vice President Rich Hindman said.

However, Lindows' marketing maneuvers have provoked skepticism. Many industry observers were surprised when the Wal-Mart deal emerged earlier this month, as the Lindows software has not yet achieved its first general release and is only available in a preview version called LindowsOS SPX. The general release is due to ship sometime this year.

Lindows.com says the Microtel systems are certified to run LindowsOS out of the box, but the company is still working on its original claim to fame: the ability to run Windows applications.

Shortly after the Microtel systems originally appeared on Wal-Mart's site, a claim that the software could run most Windows applications was taken down.

On Lindows.com's own Web site, Windows compatibility claims have been shifted into the background and are not mentioned in the main description of LindowsOS SPX, which instead emphasizes the operating system's use of the Internet to distribute software. A note in the site's technical support section says: "Our goal is to eventually run some of the more popular Windows software...at this time, Microsoft Office 2000 has undergone the most testing and is the most compatible."

LindowsOS uses a modified version of a Linux technology called WINE, which has been in development for several years with the goal of allowing Linux to load and run Windows applications.

The software has also been criticized for automatically logging users in as "root," a level at which there are no checks against damaging the system. Internet worms executing as root have a much greater potential to wreak havoc than if they were to execute at a more limited level. Lindows.com says it made root the default login to simplify the login process for beginners.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.