Tech Industry

Web leak of Linux lets Hat out of the bag

update Parts of the new version of Red Hat's Linux software slip onto the Net nearly a week before the OS's official release, giving glimpses of a product with a new mainstream focus.

update Parts of the newest version of Red Hat's Linux software slipped onto the Internet Wednesday, nearly a week before the operating system's official release date, giving glimpses of a product with a new focus on mainstream computer users.

Web surfers were able to download software updates and release notes describing what's in the package at a third-party download site, according to postings to a Red Hat mailing list. The site no longer has the packages.

"It's inevitable that packages start to leak out," Red Hat spokeswoman Leigh Day said. The company plans to release the Red Hat 8 software on Monday, including the "ISO" files, from which installation CD-ROMs can easily be made, Day said.

Red Hat 8, called "Psyche," is a significant departure from the current 7.3 "Valhalla" edition. As previously reported, it adds a new "personal desktop" installation option for more mainstream users. The previous installation choices were "workstation" and "server," both for more technically savvy users such as programmers or system administrators.

Red Hat 8 includes the OpenOffice software package, an open-source answer to Microsoft's popular Office package; Ximian's Evolution e-mail and calendar software; and Red Hat's new "Bluecurve" desktop interface, a customization of the traditional KDE or Gnome interfaces. Red Hat 8 uses the Mozilla Web browser but no longer includes the Netscape browser.

But users who want to play digital music MP3 files will need to look beyond Red Hat, which removed software to play the audio format because of patent-license issues.

Bluecurve is Red Hat's attempt to make the KDE and Gnome interfaces look the same, bridging a divide in the Linux universe, said Erik Troan, Red Hat's director of product marketing, in an interview Wednesday.

"It's an effort to unify the look and feel," Troan said. "Users shouldn't have to worry about which (interface) to choose," and programs should work the same.

Essentially, Red Hat is taking control over some elements formerly left to KDE. For example, Red Hat customizes the menu selections so there is one Web browser--Mozilla, not KDE's Konqueror. Red Hat also includes its own icons, such as a red fedora instead of KDE's gear logo or Gnome's footprint logo.

Red Hat 8, like its predecessors, will be available as a free download. Red Hat also offers a packaged version with technical support and instruction manuals but has cut prices. A basic version costs $39.95, lower than the $59.95 price for 7.3. The higher-end version, with more software and support, costs $149.95 compared with $199.95.

Linux, a clone of the Unix operating system, has been most popular with experienced computer users, such as programmers comfortable with Unix's myriad configuration files and rich array of text commands. Now companies are gradually trying to expand Linux's utility to more mainstream computer users.

Red Hat has been hinting about a broader use of Linux, a move that aligns it with Sun Microsystems in an effort to provide an alternative for some people or corporations to Microsoft's dominant Windows OS.

But not everyone is happy with the new Red Hat interface. Bernhard "bero" Rosenkraenzer, a developer of the KDE interface, resigned Wednesday from Red Hat after disagreements over how Red Hat treats KDE in its latest version of Linux.

"I don't want to work on crippling KDE, and they (Red Hat) don't want an employee who admits (Red Hat) 8.0's KDE is crippleware," Rosenkraezner said in a posting on a mailing list for KDE programmers.

Rosenkraezner didn't respond to questions about his specific objections, and Red Hat declined to comment.

Red Hat's Bluecurve interface, which works with both KDE and Gnome, eases over differences between the two products. Though many argue that competition between the two projects ensures a better overall product, others, including Gnome founder Miguel de Icaza, say they'd prefer one.

Bluecurve (the trademarked term is left over from an earlier Red Hat acquisition) will help Red Hat keep control over the effort to unify the two interfaces, Troan said. Although Bluecurve is open-source software, letting programmers change it if they wish, people won't be able to call modified projects Bluecurve because of the trademark, he said.

Bluecurve is similar to "style guides" provided by Microsoft and Apple to make sure programs look the same, Troan added.

Red Hat worked hard on the user interface to make version 8 easier to use, but the company isn't trying to conquer Microsoft, an outspoken foe of Linux. At least not with this edition.

It would be foolhardy for Red Hat to try to compete for all Microsoft users today, Troan said. "This isn't for the secretary," he said, only for people doing basic tasks such as entering data in a Web site. The prospect of conquering Microsoft is absurd right now, Troan said.

In the long run, though, Red Hat clearly has grander ambitions to reach a larger group of people. "Our challenge is to make sure that group continues to expand," Troan said.

Some are willing to be convinced of the desktop merits.

Redfish Bluefish, a Web design firm in Melbourne, Australia, is among them. The company replaced Windows servers with Linux machines, and now is testing out a system to run Red Hat on desktop machines as well, said Rodd Clarkson, a developer at the company.

"I think Red Hat 8 will make businesses, especially large 1000-plus desktop businesses, start to ask why they are paying so much for software," Clarkson said. His company is evaluating using the Linux Terminal Server Project software, which lets desktop computers download the operating system each time they're switched on, a centralized approach that makes it easier to manage the desktop machines, Clarkson said.

Missing MP3s
Red Hat decided to modify the audio players so they can't play MP3 files to avoid the risk of legal challenges stemming from differences between the terms of MP3-related patent licenses and the General Public License (GPL) that Red Hat favors, Troan said. The GPL requires that anyone be allowed to redistribute software covered by it; patent licensees won't necessarily grant such rights.

No one was coming after Red Hat for shipping MP3 players such as XMMS or noatun. "It was a conservative decision," Troan said. "It may not have been the legally necessary decision. A year ago, when we first decided to ship them, we had clear indications it was OK. Then it got a little muddier," he said. "We didn't want to become a test case."

At any rate, "People who use it know where to go to download an MP3 player," Troan added.

It didn't take long for the industrious open-source community to work around the MP3 change. Wednesday, days before the planned release of Red Hat 8, Dax Kelson of Linux training company Guru Labs wrote an update to Red Hat 8 that restores the MP3 abilities to the XMMS player.

Red Hat 8 suggests people switch to an alternative to MP3 files: Ogg Vorbis, "an open, nonproprietary, patent- and royalty-free compressed audio format," the company said in release notes. "Due to patent licensing and conflicts between such patent licenses and the licenses of application source code, (MP3) support has been removed from applications in Red Hat Linux."

Not just for newbies
The company tried to make the operating system easier to administer for techies as well as newbies. It includes new configuration software for keyboards, mice, sound cards, passwords, security and software-update installation.

Those new tools replace ones that often had been written by Troan himself in 1997. "I keep telling my engineers they should be getting my name out of the source tree," or the software repository, he said.

There are other changes deeper down. The "O(1)" scheduler written by Red Hat's Ingo Mollnar is now used, leading to quicker response time for users, Troan said.

And for programmers, Red Hat 8 comes with version 3.2 of the GCC compiler, the programming tool that converts programs people write into instructions a computer can understand. Version 3.2 produces faster software than its predecessors.