Lindows is, in case you have been living under a rock, the Linux distribution of the moment -- a Linux with built in WINE capabilities and being hailed as the answer to 'getting Linux on the desktop'. Oh I almost forgot, they are also being sued by Microsoft for trademark violation (more on that later).
The company has garnered more than few column inches in the open source press portraying itself as David fighting Microsoft's Goliath, in itself perhaps a noble pursuit.
However, at this moment Lindows itself has failed to deliver anything but hype and an examination of the facts poses some interesting questions.
To understand the concept of Lindows it is a good idea to have a quick look at the desktop Linux movement. There is a schism between 2 groups. On the one side, we have the hard core of Linux coders and tech users who revel in the power and sheer complexity of Linux. On the other side, there are the Windows-replacement factions who are looking for a replacement product for the desktop to attempt to break the Microsoft hegemony.
There are thousands of Linux distributions with varying degrees of complexity and user bases but the biggest fish in the OSS sea at the moment are :
It should be noted that these are only some of hundreds of choices in the open source OS market, which also includes non-Linux systems like the *BSD variants.
- Red Hat - Corporate vision and respectability with a technical support and certification model somewhat based on Microsoft's - the acceptable corporate Linux.
- Debian - More of a collective approach to development Debian is the result of a collaborative group of programmers and comes with a large range of software - considered an excellent OS if you're looking for advanced features but still ease of use (Disclaimer - I use Debian myself on some systems)
- Mandrake - Continues to grow in popularity this OS has an easy to use installer and comes with K office and a pile of common applications - many recommend this to beginners
- Slackware - Powerful and technical and one of the most difficult to learn with - this is the hardcore technical choice and is very popular in web and programming circles
- Suse - An interesting OS and one many people describe as a newbie's OS - excellent to install and very useable - a popular OS amongst newbie's (NOTE - Suse no longer offer downloadable X86 ISO's and finding the product for sale outside the US can be hard if not impossible
So into this market comes Lindows with the holy grail of a Windows-compatible desktop and the ability to run Windows software. Until now this has required installation if WINE, something a beginner user or a complete novice won't find easy. Lindows made an immediate splash for a number of reasons: the CEO is ex-MP3.com-headman Michael Robertson; the hype surrounding the product made it sound like the second coming; the name itself, Lindows. All of these had many members of open source frothing at the mouth. A V1.0 release was promised First Quarter 2002.
That's now. And where is it?
In fact on the entire web (I searched using Google, Altavista and Lycos) I can only find one actual comprehensive indpependant (sort of) review of the product, on Newsforge. The review Lindows OS sneak preview -- it's not vaporware after all -- is Short and the reviewer seems to have trouble getting Windows applications to run and complains about font issues. The review itself raises some questions about the OS and its mission.
Linux users will find this preview fun to play with, but Lindows OS appears to be hampered without a Windows partition, which defeats the implied purpose of Lindows: to be able to freely run all Windows apps on Linux with no need for Windows.
This seems to be the key argument - it appears users will require a Windows license to use the product in the way in which it is being advertised -- which is understandable for users wanting Windows apps but poses a whole raft of licensing and EULA issues.
But maybe there's more than that - and the desktop might be a good reason so lets look at some screenshots.
Umm well - there's 2 - and they are both on Lindows.com site. The screenshots are impressive but there's been some questions raised about them and I will leave it up to you to look and examine -- in themselves they look a little too perfect to many.
Now it's true that 2 screenshots are better than none, but this is an OS that is due to be released End First Quarter (note the Lindows Website now says later in 2002).
Note : there are 3 screenshots attached to the Newsforge Article but only one shows a word article running and there is no indication that they are actually Lindows -- they may be but the screenshots look like at least 4 other Linux distributions and offer none of the earth-shaking perfection that the official ones do, but they may be indeed Lindows so I must add them here.
Another thing to note is that Lindows is 'powered' by Xandros the company who have taken over the mantle of Corel Linux and who themselves have an OS in beta.
But surely with Beta Testers there must be more screenshots out there. In fact there is none -- every site on the web appears to link back to that same Lindows page or have a copy of those same 2 screenshots. It's a very tight beta which brings us to that subject
The Beta or "Preview" Program
Lindows has hit on an interesting beta concept for open source software: pay for play. The Lindows.Com site sums it up on the Insiders Section. Basically the concept is simple; in the company's own words :
What do we ask of you?
A $99 fee for a one year membership in the Lindows.com Insiders program and your commitment to take time to share your feedback about our plans, our products and our future direction.
Agree to a non-disclosure agreement, keeping the program itself and those things you learn as a Lindows.com Insider confidential, just as any Lindows.com employee would.
Interesting. An open source company developing software on a GPL license requiring a payment for beta testing and a non-disclosure agreement. Whilst I do not believe this to be a breach of the actual GPL surely it goes against the spirit of it?
What do you get for your $99? Well...
Anytime we have news to share - you'll be among the first to know. At times, you'll have the opportunity to view our technical and business information that most companies don't normally share with outsiders.
But you don't get a guarantee of actually seeing the OS :
Although certain Insiders may be called upon to review and/or test the OS as it develops, joining the Lindows.com Insiders program does not guarantee this.
The good side is that you get your money back if not happy according to the company.
And that's it -- a comprehensive web search fails to find any information on the numbers of Lindows 'insiders' (something most companies would publish surely) and not one copy of the NDA (on the web that's incredible!) In fact the only news and press information on the site are puff pieces and links to stories on the lawsuit.
In case you have missed the news Microsoft sued Lindows over the name of the product and violation of its trademark in late 2001. The suit alleges that the name is a trademark violation of the windows copyright.
It is not my intention to get into the issue in this article; there's lots of information available and some articles to read can be found on Inforworld, The New York Times and others. It appears that the company has had a victory in court with a statement that Microsoft may not own the windows trademark... But the fact is a quick search would have found that Microsoft failed to obtain a trademark in 1990 on the name.
Thus there are a few questions here. Lindows almost certainly knew that Microsoft didn't hold a patent or trademark on the `Windows' Name (note this is different to `Microsoft Windows'); lets face it NO company would fail to check it in advance if the name of it's product was copyrighted... but they also knew in my opinion that Microsoft would file suit to protect the value of its name and the consumer recognition therein. There's also the question of possible EULA violations of Windows (licensing would require a user to own licenses of Windows and all the software he wants to use in Wine) as well. So why choose Lindows as a name in the certain case you would end up in court?
Lycoris -- formerly Redmond Linux -- are aiming for a similar market and are based in Microsoft's home town yet they have avoided any lawsuit issues, so why have Lindows it seems sought it out ?
Why would a small under funded startup seek out a lawsuit with the biggest software giant on the planet? The truth is they are not such a small underfunded company. In fact, it being a private company, finding information on the investors in Lindows.Com Inc is very hard. The company was set up by ex-MP3.com-CEO Michael Robertson after he resigned from the company on the eve of their sale to Vivendi (having lost a copyright violation lawsuit -- something the Lindows.com Corporate profile fails to mention). In fact, Robertson's company became something of a magnet for lawsuits which cost it over US$130 Million in the end. Information on Robertson's personal fortune is impossible to find it seems but one would suspect $4.5 million to be a small part of it after Vivendi paid $372 million US for MP3.com, a company in which he had a substantial shareholding.
The Lindows corporate team looks like a friends club, President Kevin Carmody (ex MP3.com Project Director) worked at Franklin Covey on Ascend, which was developed by Lindows Technology VP Thomas C Welch. The VP of marketing John Bromhead has the interesting distinction of having worked for Stac, who successfully sued Microsoft over patent violations in 1994. Certainly a powerful team with excellent tech credentials and one you would think with the skills to avoid a lawsuit and certainly one with the ability to think up an excellent name which would avoid and lawsuit issues.
So why would a company burn up venture capital money in a lawsuit.
The author's suspicion is that by being engaged in a lawsuit with Microsoft the publicity is invaluable; Microsoft is a slow moving target fighting the Monopoly tag leveled at it and at the moment it appears to be fashionable to be involved in legal action with them and any company doing so automatically appears to gain the underdog status against the Microsoft giant regardless of the factual details of any lawsuit.
Lindows garners the support of the free software and open source community and becomes a visible name very quickly, gaining market recognition. They can use the open source VS Microsoft the Monopoly line to build awareness of the product and increase sales and possibly even attract venture capital. They may actually win the case (a doubtful outcome in my opinion as Microsoft can still pull out prior-art cases and show that the Windows Trademark is recognizably theirs and the appeals could drag on, will drag on for years), but win or lose, Lindows has brought priceless publicity well worth the cost of a lawsuit which at worst will force them to pay costs and change the name (as they have no released product to charge a copyright violation fee for). Which will garner more publicity?
A case in point was the massive flurry of support garnered in January when Microsoft were successful in obtaining a subpoena to obtain the Lindows subscriber mailing lists which prompted posts from Mr. Robertson to a number of sites including Slashdot. Now on the surface of it this might be understandably worrying but it is a normal process in a lawsuit on trademark and copyright violation; something Mr. Robertson should have been well aware of with his experience in lawsuit terms (it is impossible for him to claim he has no experience in litigation)but the very suggestion of such a move spun in the way it was (evil Microsoft wants your private details) could be seen by some as a cynical attempt to gain more open source support and credibility. Certainly its easier than releasing an actual product.
The above is of course only one conclusion that can be drawn but the facts on Lindows pose a number of questions for answer and must raise the suspicion that, so far, the company has nothing to show for its actions but a few screenshots and a lawsuit.
The Questions and Conclusion
Lindows has a lot of promise to deliver on. It certainly claims to be an excellent OS for windows users looking to change but there are a number of points in the available information that need to be raised
Until some of these questions are answered and a comprehensive review of a running Lindows OS with screenshots verified as independent is published the questions about the actual existence of the OS will remain.
- How many Insiders does Lindows have?
- How many of those are actively beta testing the OS?
- What connection do Xandros actually have with Lindows?
- Why have there been no comprehensive reviews of the product? (the Newsforge is a short and not very deep piece)
- Why have there not been more Independent screenshots of the product released?
- If the product is open source then why the Non Disclosure agreement?
- Is the product intended to be sold only with no downloadable free copies?
- If the above is to be the case what are the GPL source code issues?
- Why charge for a Beta Test?
- What investigation has been done into the licensing issues with Windows Software?
- Will a user require a license of a Windows OS to use windows applications?
- What is the release date of the product?
- A freely downloadable and working desktop OS designed for beginners - it has Wine installed and appears to work - worth a look
- The homepage of the wine (windows compatibility layer software) it is freely downloadable and if you have patience can be run on any Linux OS
- This page is run by Lindows but has full text of the judges rulings and lawsuit documents.
Please comment your thoughts but note that the author is not making a comment on Linux as a whole but on a single Linux product - the author is not anti-Linux.