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Lindows faces a reality check

Reality has increasingly intruded on Lindows.com's plans for a Windows-compatible, consumer Linux desktop, causing it to fall quiet about its quest to marry the open-source and Microsoft worlds.

Lindows.com, the Linux operating system maker, is being forced to re-evaluate its strategy to lure the average computer user away from Windows.

The company has increasingly moved away from its original claim to fame--the development of software that will run popular Windows applications on a non-Microsoft platform.

A representative for Lindows.com confirmed that while some Windows applications will run on LindowsOS, this compatibility is no longer the company's top priority. "Our product does not target the user who wants to save a few dollars on the operating system, but then still run out and spend thousands of dollars on Microsoft Office, Photoshop, etc," she said.

Instead, Lindows.com will focus on making Linux applications easy to download and install. However, where there is no Linux-based alternative to a Microsoft application, LindowsOS will support "some 'bridge' programs, file types and network devices to help people interact with the legacy Microsoft world," the representative said.

Lindows.com Chief Executive Michael Robertson has said in the past that marketing, rather than technology, was the key to increasing Linux's acceptance in the mainstream market, and the company's marketing has shifted away from a focus on Windows compatibility to one on features such as the company's application download service. The change has led some in the industry to question whether Lindows really has anything to offer that isn't already available in existing Linux distributions.

The Linux operating system is based on the open-source GNU General Public License, which allows different companies to modify and redistribute the software, as long as modifications are returned to the community. Because of this, many distributions of Linux exist, including one from developer Red Hat, which has gained the largest market share by focusing on the server market.

LindowsOS has recently found a direct route to the PC-buying public in the form of low-cost Lindows PCs sold on Wal-Mart's Web site. Wal-Mart also offers PCs running Mandrake Linux, another Linux distribution designed with the end user in mind, and PCs without an operating system pre-installed.

Climbing into Windows
Lindows was originally conceived as a version of Linux aimed at those familiar with Windows. It would include a modified version of WINE, an open-source technology designed to mimic the Windows environment on a Linux platform. In October of last year, the company statement announcing the operating system described it as "a modern, affordable, easy-to-use operating system with the ability to run both Windows and Linux software."

Roberts was optimistic at the time that Lindows would be able to build broad support for Windows applications. "In 18 to 24 months, we think we can have really robust support for a great deal of all Windows software out there," he said.

LindowsOS' implementation of WINE was derived from work by CodeWeavers, another Linux-Windows developer that provided "the majority" of Lindows' WINE code, according to Robertson's comments on a developer discussion group. In April, however, CodeWeavers ended its business relationship with Lindows.com and began offering CrossOver Office, a $54.95 application that offers the kind of Windows support for Linux that was originally claimed for Lindows.

Wal-Mart's Web site first advertised its Lindows PCs as being able to run Windows applications, but this claim was soon removed. At about the same time, Lindows.com moved its own Windows compatibility claims into the background, instead highlighting a feature called Click-N-Run Warehouse. This allows any user with a $99-per-year subscription to download and automatically install a wide variety of Linux applications, most of which are normally available for free with any Linux distribution.

In the past few days, Lindows.com has again changed the Windows compatibility claims on its site. The sections of the site describing the operating system now say that the software can "run a select set of 'bridge' Windows-compatible programs" in order to "help users migrate to the new world".

Companies such as Ximian offer a download-and-install feature similar to that from Lindows.com, but no major players are currently focused on the consumer market. During the dot-com boom, however, Corel, Eazel and others tried and failed to build a business on a consumer version of Linux.

In related news, Lindows.com announced on Tuesday that it will host a Desktop Linux Summit, aimed at rallying interest in consumer Linux distributions.

The summit will take place Feb. 20 and 21 next year in San Diego, Calif., Lindows.com said, and will include the participation of "some of the largest hardware and software companies in the industry," although these companies were not named. DesktopLinux.com, a site that promotes Linux for desktop PC use, will also be involved, Lindows.com said.

CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.