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The Linux Effect -
For all it's popularity among Geeks and the Wired Media, the Linux operating system has yet to make the move to the ordinary desktop for a simple reason.

People are afraid of it.

Pundits who predicted that Linux, the open-source operating system developed by Linus Torvalds with the help of a fanatical team of programmers around the world, would eat Windows alive and spit out the pieces, so far have been disappointed.

The reason?

Linux is a world removed from the technical abilities of average computer users reared in the cozy confines of the point and click Windows world. The strengths that make Linux so popular among hardcore techies - flexibility and dependability - come at a price, a complicated set of user commands which most observers agree it takes a experienced software programmer to really understand.

Which goes a long way towards explaining why, despite the tremendous inroads in the server market Linux has made, and the raging popularity of Linux stocks like RedHat and VA Linux on Wall Street, the Operating System has yet to turn up on ordinary people's desktops.

This is an equation that adds up to a big fat opportunity in many people's minds, a fact evidenced by the nearly one hundred and forty different companies offering Linux on the market today.

Similar opportunities have existed in the history of the software and PC industries. Moments when it was clear that a demand existed and could easily be met, if only somebody took the time to sit down and figure out the problem.

The companies that met these challenges are now household names worth billions.

At at a time when dot coms are dying off left and right, victims of their own hype and absurdly immature business models, it's a point worth noting.

Opportunities are made.

Not followed.

Sun Microsystems did it the 1970's, building workstations at a time when it was obvious more powerful computers were needed.

Cisco did it as well, liberating Stanford University from the tyranny of a set of incompatible networks, in the process perfecting a happy little gizmo you may have heard of - the router.

Beginning to see a thread?

It is the classic Geek equation.

Give me a problem and I will solve it. Not because I want to make a million dollars and not because I want my company to have a red hot IPO, but because I want to solve the fucking problem.

Sometimes it's that simple.

Which brings us to the point of today's rambling screed - a company named Eazel.

Founded less than a year ago with funding from angel investor Ron Conway and former Macromedia executive John Colligan, Eazel has announced plans to release a user-friendly desktop for Linux, in collaboration with GNOME, the popular Linux desktop environment developed by an open source team led by Mexican programmer Miguel de Icaza.

All of which would mean nothing, or at least very little given the amount of activity surrounding Linux, if it wasn't for the other names behind the project.

In Silicon Valley history books, few names stand out as prominently as those of Andy Hertzfeld, Bud Tribble, Mike Boich and Susan Kare, the members of the original team that developed the interface for the beloved Macintosh.

The easy to use and appealing Mac interface, of course, is credited with having helped popularize computing for the masses by transforming the user interface from a hostile world of command lines and archaic commands to a point and click environment where even novices felt at home. It is also widely believed to have been the inspiration for the look, and some feel the functionality, of the Windows operating system.

Which explains why, when Eazel announced it would be entering the competitive Linux market, people sat up and paid attention and in some cases fell over.

The new desktop - dubbed Nautilus - will be distributed free of charge via the Net (the old give away the razor trick strikes again), a strategy likely to help Eazel move quickly into the market. More on their business model later.

Kare, the graphic designer responsible for the Mac's icons will do the interface. What we've seen of the initial design so far looks good with the potential to become awesome.

(To take a peek, click here.)

Several clever interface innovations suggest Nautilus may in fact actually be the revolutionary design some people are predicting. In the system's open file management system, users can zoom in on files and folders, revealing increasing levels of detail. Up close you'll be able to read the contents of a document. Place your mouse over a folder containing an audio file and the file will play.

The system will also permit greater control in file management. Users will be able to inspect files currently difficult to examine on the macro level. For example, you'll be able to zoom in on a single email. You'll also be able to customize file properties, marking files with your own descriptions, a much needed development given the thousands of files and folders many users are forced to deal with.

Nautilus is also - sorry Bill - a web browser. A not-so-subtle slap in the face to those who in the past suggested it might be a good idea to consider integrating the operating system and the web browser.

Neat stuff all.

But the foundation for a new dynasty of the Penguin in the Valley?

Actually, yes. It's quite likely.

In addition to simplifying the interface and adding all those little wrinkles, Eazel is also aiming to change the way software is distributed and supported.

If you're familiar with the way in which WYSIWYG HTML Editors are structured you'll understand the analogy - Eazel will allow varying levels of user involvement.

Beginners won't have to worry about the details. A simple online installation process will eliminate many of the headaches commonly associated with Linux, walking newbies step by step through setup.

But for more experienced Linux users Nautilus will support full customization, allowing them to tinker away to their heart's content, an vital feature given how passionately people feel about maintaining the integrity of this operating system.

It's also a given that Eazel will bring in the big guns of the Internet business model - offering an e-commerce site as well as automated user support. This, of course, is where, if the scheme works, the money will come pouring in.

Exactly how all of this will play out is open to interpretation.

It certainly didn't take long for the rumors to start flying. Posters to Slashdot have frothed about the possibility of a Red Hat takeover, a move that would certainly make sense for the Linux favorite.

And then there's Microsoft's own uncertain future to consider. A punitive ruling involving the breakup of the company or some other equally drastic measure could cause a great deal of confusion, setting the stage for dramatic changes in the structure of the operating system market.

You know the closing line already.

Stay tuned. More to follow.

Visit The Eazel Site.

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