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Xandros gives away desktop Linux

Start-up revisits the idea of free open-source software--but at the expense of features.

Xandros, a start-up focused on desktop Linux, has begun offering a stripped-down but free version of its product.

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The New York City-based company on Wednesday released its Open Circulation Edition. This desktop version of the Linux operating system resembles the company's regular products but is free, is restricted to personal use and lacks some features.

The free version, for example, doesn't include support by e-mail, an instruction manual, the fastest CD-writing speeds or the CodeWeavers software for running Windows programs on a Linux machine, Xandros said. It also comes with a version of Opera's Web browser that's advertising supported.

Xandros' moves represent a new chapter in the private sector's continuing efforts to capitalize on the popularity of Linux and open-source software. Those products generally can be obtained for free--though not necessarily in a conveniently packaged form. Many Linux sellers argue that the act of selecting, certifying and supporting the software that comes with Linux is a service worth paying for.

But there can be an incentive for companies to package and give away open-source software: It can lead to popularity, developer support and opportunities to lure users to paid products.

That strategy can only go so far, though. The most successful Linux seller, Red Hat, decided in 2002 that such a plan didn't provide sufficient revenue.

Red Hat had sold and supported a version of Linux identical to its freely downloadable product. After 2002, though, it split those two versions. Now, the supported, corporate product, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, can't be downloaded for free. Instead, it's sold for use on a single server, with Red Hat charging an annual subscription for support and service provided through the Red Hat Network.

Meanwhile, No. 2 seller SuSE Linux was snapped up by Novell, a company that sells proprietary higher-level software. Another contender, Lindows--now often going by the name Linspire because of a legal tangle with Microsoft--sells its software for a low price but charges extra for software additions that can be downloaded.

Xandros, like Lindows, concentrates on Linux for desktop PCs rather than for the networked server computers on which Novell and Red Hat have focused. Xandros sells three versions: the Standard Edition for $39, the Deluxe Edition for $89 and the Business Edition for $129.

The free version has some money-making options built in, too, though.

For one thing, the software is available only through BitTorrent, software that sets up networks of computers to cooperatively share files; downloading the version directly from Xandros costs $10. For another, users who want the 350-page manual will have to buy it separately or buy the Deluxe or Business editions.