Easy Linux pioneer Eazel closes shop

Founded by Apple and Netscape alumni, the company that wanted to bring Linux to the masses couldn't develop an easy-to-use interface before the money ran out.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor on
The start-up that was going to make Linux dead-easy is dead.

Eazel closed its doors this week after 16 months of developing a Linux interface for the consumer market. The company had spent the last several months in pursuit of a second round of funding. That search came to an end this week as an Eazel co-founder notified members of the GNOME software-development community that the company was going out of business.

"I regret to inform you that Eazel is in fact shutting down," Eazel co-founder Bart Decrem wrote in a notice to GNOME developers. "Over the past six months, our board members and executives worked tirelessly to secure financing for the company. Unfortunately, the high-tech capital markets have all but dried up and we have been unable to secure funding."

Eazel was founded by veterans of some of the most successful consumer endeavors in computing history. These included Chief Executive Mike Boich, who joined Apple Computer in 1982 and was an evangelist for the budding Macintosh project, and "software wizard" Andy Hertzfeld, who started at Apple in 1979, where he wrote much of the original Macintosh OS.

Another founding member of the Eazel team was board member Mike Homer, a former senior vice president at America Online who joined the world's largest Internet service provider with its acquisition of Netscape Communications. At Netscape, Homer was in charge of the Netcenter portal. He also got his start at Apple, in 1982.

Eazel's work was an extension of the GNOME user interface that sought to make a Linux graphical interface as easy to use as those in the popular Macintosh and AOL systems. With the current GNOME and the competing KDE user interfaces for Linux, it's still hard to avoid typing in commands.

Linux has shown some signs of growth for desktop use, but the OS is used predominantly on servers.

Eazel won $11 million in first-round venture funding from Accel Partners in April 2000. Before that, it launched with seed money from its founders, as well as with investments from Ron Conway's Angel Investors, Sippl Macdonald Ventures, and former Macromedia chairman and Eazel board member John "Bud" Colligan (a board member of CNET Networks, publisher of News.com, and now a partner with Accel).

Eazel was not alone in trying to deliver easy-to-use Linux. Corel in 1999 released a user-friendly Linux version, and MandrakeSoft, a French company with a U.S. presence, is marketing its Linux product as "a complete pre-configured graphical Linux operating system (that is) easy to install, easy to use and stable."

Eazel, the brainchild of Mac OS co-author Hertzfeld, got as far as releasing version 1.0 of its Nautilus interface in March. The company subsequently laid off half its staff in attempts to attract funding.

Like the rest of GNOME, Eazel was designed to be developed under the open-source model, in which anyone can use or contribute to code under a public license. That means that the software development may potentially outlive the company that initiated it.

"It all depends on what kind of volunteers show up to work on it and who's interested in keeping it going," said Darin Adler, Eazel's first employee and an independent consultant. "There's no guarantee that people will show up."

At the height of the Eazel development effort six months ago, out of the 15 contributing developers, 13 were paid, according to Adler. One month ago, after the launch of Nautilus 1.0 and subsequent layoffs, those numbers shrank to four or five paid developers out of six.

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