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New batch of CEOs climbs into open-source saddle

In the past week, new chief executives have arrived at no less than three purveyors of open-source software: MandrakeSoft, Cybernet Systems and Covalent Technologies.

It's open season for open-source chief executives.

In the past week, new CEOs have arrived at no less than three purveyors of open-source software: Linux seller MandrakeSoft, Linux server software seller Cybernet Systems, and Apache Web server services company Covalent Technologies.

Open-source software, most notably the Linux clone of the Unix operating system, can be freely shared, modified and redistributed, unlike proprietary packages from companies such as Microsoft.

Open-source software is becoming more popular with established companies and with newer arrivals such as Red Hat, which bases its products on the Linux operating system; Tripwire, which creates file-tampering detection software of the same name; and Active State, which bases its business on the Perl programming language.

John Jack will take over as Covalent's president and chief executive; former Covalent CEO Randy Terbush will continue as chief technology officer. San Francisco-based Covalent provides software and services for the Apache Web server, the most popular program used to send pages to people surfing the Web.

Jack, 45, was most recently CEO of software company Shaman and before that an executive with database software company Sybase.

Cybernet's line of NetMax Linux-based server appliance software now will be under the leadership of chief executive Gena Lodolo.

Lodolo, who will also be vice president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Cybernet, previously was senior vice president of sales and marketing for technology consulting company Complete Business Solutions.

And up-and-coming MandrakeSoft is now under the leadership of Herni Poole, an American whose most recent stint was co-founder and chief executive of Vivid Studios. MandrakeSoft, which is based in Paris and has 90 employees, formerly was under the leadership of co-founder Jacques Le Marois.

Linux-Mandrake originally was nearly identical to Red Hat's version of Linux. Although the software is still 99 percent compatible with Red Hat, MandrakeSoft is striking off on its own.

Deals signed with IBM global services and Hewlett-Packard are an indication of MandrakeSoft's growing prominence. Poole declined to reveal specifics of the deals.

Another sign of interest in the company has come from investment banking firm ABN-Amro, which introduced Poole to MandrakeSoft while he was kicking around Europe this year.

Linux-Mandrake is distributed CNET's Linux Centerin the United States through an exclusive partnership with MacMillan Publishers. MandrakeSoft, which is funded by a Vivendi venture subsidiary called Viventure, has enough funding "at the current burn rate to last several years," Poole said, though the company is hiring and consequently will increase expenditures.

The company eventually plans an initial public offering. "We want to do it when the time is right," he said.

MandrakeSoft has always been interested in Linux as a desktop operating system--an effort complicated by Microsoft's dominance and the difficulties of making Linux user-friendly. Other companies, in particular Corel and Eazel, are struggling with the same task. MandrakeSoft is aiming chiefly for corporate users, Poole said.

Macs and Windows-based PCs have an edge, he acknowledged, but that will change. "With the ease of use and all the applications, it's just generally more simple to use these more evolved products," he said.

Like Red Hat, MandrakeSoft sells boxed software and hopes to make money through services. It's not a problem that the software is also available for free, Poole asserts.

"There's an opportunity to be successful on a Grateful Dead model," he said. "The Dead made money and let people record their music." MandrakeSoft sells training, professional services and support, Poole said.