Defying Gates, entrepreneur sells Lindows

Essay: A businessman tries to offer Microsoft some competition.

July 11, 2002|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Michael Robertson is back, rising from the dot-com rubble with all the rough ambition of a dethroned prince.

You might recall Robertson, founder of MP3.com, which helped to establish the popularity of MP3 digital music recordings. Robertson loved to rail against music moguls, warning them to change or die.

In 2000, Robertson offered a service that played hit tunes over the Internet. Technically, it was a clever idea, but it seems that Robertson's lawyers weren't as sharp as his software engineers. Otherwise, they might have warned him that he couldn't air Metallica songs without paying royalties.

Once the music industry lawyers were done, MP3 was forced to pay $53 million in penalties. Last year, the remains of MP3.com were sold to the music producer Vivendi Universal.

But Robertson is still looking for a fight, this time with Microsoft Corp. He has teamed up with a California computer maker and the world's largest retailer to sell a line of ultra-cheap desktop computers equipped with Robertson's version of the powerful but geeky Linux operating system.

"We're trying to get people choice," Robertson declares. "Right now, there is no choice. There's only Microsoft."

It's bold enough to peddle Linux to consumers. But Robertson is bolder yet; he named his software Lindows. Why pick a name so similar to Windows, Microsoft's trademarked name for its operating systems? "They didn't invent the word `windows,'" replies Robertson, in the aggrieved voice of the righteous. "It's a generic computing term."

That didn't stop Microsoft from suing. But the courts have so far sided with Robertson, leaving him free for now to keep selling Lindows software.

Then again, who would want to buy it? The product isn't finished yet; the Lindows Web site admits that the operating system installs correctly on customers' machines only about 80 percent of the time, hardly worth the $99 a year Lindows asks for an "insider" subscription, which entitles buyers to Lindows, future upgrades and a host of add-on software packages.

But Lindows runs well enough to be loaded onto machines that have been tested for compatibility. That's where Wal-Mart came in. Its Web site now sells dirt-cheap Lindows boxes, manufactured by California-based Microtel Computer Systems.

"I think Wal-Mart is about bringing products to every stratum of Americana that was perhaps priced out of the market," Robertson said.

It's a noble sentiment, but Wal-Mart also was supposed to be interested in satisfying the customer. So how did they get sucked into selling these things?

The Microtel Lindows unit I looked at costs $299. For that, you get a cheesy but serviceable mini-tower with an 850-megahertz AMD Duron processor, 128 megabytes of memory and a smallish 10-gigabyte hard drive. There's a CD drive but no floppy drive or monitor. Add $130 for a 17-inch monitor.

There's a manual for the computer's motherboard, just the thing for engineers and hobbyists. But there's no user manual for ordinary folks, nor is there much in the way of usable software. Robertson once boasted that his version of Linux would be able to run many Windows programs using Windows-simulation software called WINE. Robertson has since backed away from that contention but vowed to keep working at it. For now, all you get is a variety of no-name Linux programs.

And they don't come with the machine. You must download them from the Internet using a system called Click-n-Run. Well, I clicked - repeatedly - but it wouldn't run. Of course, the machine was linked to the Internet over a dial-up connection. A Lindows spokeswoman said Click-n-Run works better over a broadband link, but most homes don't have one.

So it's $430 for a bare-bones Lindows box from a no-name manufacturer, with hardly any useful software aboard and a 17-inch monitor. Elsewhere on its Web site, Walmart.com offers a $600 Hewlett-Packard PC with Windows XP, a bigger hard drive, a faster processor, the Microsoft Works Home Office suite, and a 15-inch monitor. For someone unskilled in the use of Linux, an extra $170 is a small price for retaining one's sanity.

Hiawatha Bray is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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