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Cheap boxes for Linux

A relatively unknown computer builder is aiming to become the Emachines of the Linux world, with the cheapest machine going for $649.

A relatively unknown computer builder is aiming to become the Emachines of the Linux world.

The Linux Store has begun selling low-priced computers running with the Linux operating system, said John Wise, chief information officer for the company.

The cheapest machine costs $649, including an AMD K6-2 300-MHz chip, Red Hat Linux, KDE user interface, a 6.4 GB hard disk, 64 MB of memory, a video card and sound card, but no monitor.

"We're not going to let anyone touch us on price," Wise said. The computers are aimed at first-time Linux users who "would like to become familiar with Linux and to see what it has to offer," Wise said.

The Linux Store hopes to find its own niche in the meteoric rise of ultra-low-cost PC vendors such as Emachines, combined with the increasing popularity of Linux.

Moving to Linux lets the company avoid the fee of about $85 to obtain a license for the Microsoft Windows operating system, the second most expensive component after the hard disk. Most PC vendors include a Windows OS as a standard component of their products.

Even when Windows is removed, these vendors will often still charge more for a Window-less PC. Dell Computer, for instance, charges $20 to $90 more for Linux-based workstations than NT-based workstations although the Linux OS in question generally costs much less than retail copies of NT.

Another factor that may help the company is that the Linux user interface, long criticized as harder to handle than mainstream operating systems, is getting easier to use.

"This may turn out to be an attractive system for leading-edge users who want to get computing capability for less money," said Roger Kay, an International Data Corporation analyst. However, he cautioned that the consumer market is not known for being in the technological vanguard and ordinary consumers probably aren't ready for the full Unix experience.

"Linux on the desktop is a lot more questionable than Linux as a workstation" or Linux as a server, Kay said. IDC projects Linux on the desktop won't be viable until 2002.

The Linux Store got its start as a Scottsdale, Arizona, manufacturer of generic "white box" PCs called CPU MicroMart, with sales of about 5,000 a month, Wise said. The company has just begun its effort to make its move into the Linux realm. The company announced today that it has received $2 million in equity funding over the past four months.

The company has joined others such as VA Research and Penguin Computing that offer Linux machines. Penguin offers AMD-based systems with somewhat better components for a base price of $990, not including a monitor.

VA Research, which can count Intel among its investors, has enough demand for its Linux computers that it has moved to outsource most of its manufacturing.

The Linux Store will sell only over the Web, Wise said. It will begin marketing with ad campaigns on sites popular with Linux users such as Slashdot or Freshmeat.

The guerilla marketing strategy makes sense, Kay said. "They don't want to get embattled with the heavy infrastructures of the traditional PC [manufacturers]. They need to work with the leanest structures to reduce their...fixed costs," he said.

The machines come with toll call technical support for hardware issues and is working on more formal support options in the future. The company also will offer an online knowledge base for tips and tricks.

Responding to criticisms that the Linux interface isn't yet easy enough to use, Wise said, "I don't think people have taken a look at the KDE interface," which is stable, easy to use, and looks like Windows.

In addition, the Gnome user interface is looking increasingly promising, he said.