Mandrake Linux download policy angers club members

The Linux distributor is appealing to its user base to make donations to help it through tough times - but some members feel they've been jilted in return
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Days after MandrakeSoft launched a controversial "club" to boost its bottom line, the Linux distributor has angered many in its user community by changing the rules of the Mandrake Club programme.

MandrakeSoft finalised version 8.2 of Mandrake Linux on Monday, and became the first Linux distributor to announce that it would include StarOffice 6.0, an office suite from Sun Microsystems that recently instituted fees after several years as a free download. Because of the fees from Sun, MandrakeSoft decided to allow only some Mandrake Club members to download the office software -- those paying higher fees.

The decision to allow the downloads to Silver members and higher left out about two-thirds of the Mandrake Club members, despite the club's original claim that "All membership levels enjoy the same benefits." The move has angered many Mandrake users.

"I find this 'new' arrangement disturbing," wrote one user in MandrakeSoft's forums. "I think the Mandrake distro is great, but I am greatly disappointed in this new decision."

MandrakeSoft explains that it was taken by surprise by Sun's decision to charge for StarOffice, and was forced to come up with a compromise for its users. "There were two possibilities: 1) don't let the Club members download the SO6; 2) Let all of them download the SO6, and cut our revenues; (or) 3) Let only the higher levels of membership download," wrote Denis Havlik, MandrakeSoft's forum moderator, on Tuesday. "After counting all the 'pros' and 'contras', and doing some polls among the users, we thought that '3' is the best solution."

Because of this policy, the company changed the note on Mandrake Club's site from "All membership levels enjoy the same benefits," to "All membership levels enjoy almost the same benefits." This, however, left many of the original Club members feeling ripped off.

"You simply cannot apply the change to your original set of club users," wrote one user. "We were told we would enjoy same benefits."

It was not clear as of Friday afternoon whether MandrakeSoft was planning to change its policy, and the company did not respond to requests for comment. The original notice saying that StarOffice 6.0 would be available for download by Club members has now been removed.

MandrakeSoft's decision on 12 March to launch a drive for the Mandrake Club surprised many industry observers, with the company's claim that it is in danger of shutting down if it does not receive short-term funding from its user community. "Mandrake Linux distribution's short-term future is in jeopardy due to a simple factor: money," the company wrote in a statement.

The club offers memberships at rates ranging from $5 (about £3) per month to $100 for individuals, and also offers corporate memberships. With the dot-com implosion other high-tech companies have turned to similar methods of support, including many high-profile Web sites that have begun offering special content to subscribers.

For Linux distributors such as MandrakeSoft, Red Hat and SuSE the situation is complicated by the fact that they deal in open-source software, which is generally covered by licences requiring that any development work done by the company be released freely back to the community. Linux companies generally make their revenues from retail versions of their products and by selling support services. Sun, for example, is to begin charging for StarOffice 6.0, but still offers the software's open-source components as a free download.

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