UnitedLinux working on desktop distribution

Linux Expo: With version 1.0 of its server software on the way, the unified Linux group is also contemplating a desktop rollout. It may also bring in new members

UnitedLinux, the joint software development effort by four Linux distributors, is working on a version of its software for desktop computers, according to executive Gregory Blepp. Attending last week's Linux Expo UK in London, Blepp also said that the group was considering bringing in new members once version 1.0 of its main server software is out the door. Blepp, who acts as spokesman for UnitedLinux on top of his role as vice president of international business for member company SuSE, said that the introduction of a version of UnitedLinux aimed at desktop computers such as workstations was more dependent on organising the UnitedLinux members than on producing the technology. "We have a desktop plan almost ready. The products are ready. We have the technology, but the question is how to put it on the street, and to make sure everybody is thinking the same way," Blepp said. SuSE itself already sells a workstation version of its software, but UnitedLinux's distribution is based on SuSE's Enterprise Server, which is tailored for servers. Linux is an open-source clone of Unix that gained a significant share in the server market during the dot-com boom. It has so far failed to make much headway in the desktop market, where it competes with Microsoft's Windows, but Linux vendors have shown increasing interest in that territory. The latest release of the dominant Red Hat distribution, version 8.0, is more desktop-friendly than before, while MandrakeSoft's distribution has long included features for the novice user. In the consumer market, Lindows.com is selling a distribution tailored for non-technical users familiar with Windows. New recruits
Blepp said that two additional Linux distributors were "waiting until the December or January timeframe to join (UnitedLinux)". He said that the potential new members were being evaluated for what they could contribute alongside the initial four companies: SuSE, SCO Group, Conectiva and Turbolinux. "We have had discussions with most of the smaller Linux distribution organisations. We want to see a real contribution, though, not just joining for the sake of it. They should join with a certain expertise that is currently missing," Blepp said. The current members each have a different technical and geographical focus, with SuSE in Germany, Conectiva in Brazil, SCO in the US and Turbolinux in Asia-Pacific. Blepp said that UnitedLinux isn't actively courting new members right now, as it focuses on completing the full release of version 1.0 of its enterprise-focused operating system distribution. The software will be the same for each company, and will be accompanied by add-ons chosen by each partner. It adopts a sedate annual release schedule in order to make upgrades and maintenance easier for large businesses. Beta than nothing
The response to the public test version, or beta, of UnitedLinux 1.0 has been encouraging so far, Blepp said, with about 15,000 requests for downloads in the first 10 hours after it was released on the Internet three weeks ago. In the two and a half weeks after its release the software has been downloaded 36,000 times. Blepp said that much of the attention at Linux Expo focused on how the four member companies would avoid tangling in the marketplace. Since they are geographically far apart, the four will not directly compete most of the time. But SCO and SuSE overlap geographically in Europe, and both cater through different channels to large businesses. On its side, SuSE has widely recognised technical expertise with Linux, and has used this to form a deal with IBM to jointly provide software and services to the two companies' customers. However, it lacks the manpower to directly support a large number of big customers, and Blepp said that SuSE is currently stretched by a contract to introduce Linux into many parts of the German government. SCO, on the other hand, has a wide network of reseller relationships around the world, and is practiced at dealing with big customers -- especially large chains such as electrical retailer Dixons. But the company is known more for its Unix products than its Caldera-branded Linux software. Staying at arm's length
When the idea of joining forces was originally proposed, the four companies considered creating UnitedLinux as a joint-venture or even merging, Blepp said. But these ideas were abandoned as too complicated. "It is like before a marriage, you have an engagement. During the engagement period there were a lot of egos and different technical approaches that needed to be dealt with. We decided that (merging) is a layer of discussion that does nothing but make lawyers rich," he said. Instead, the companies decided on a joint development effort that would be taken to market by the individual companies. A Delaware-registered corporation is responsible for the UnitedLinux logo and with coordinating the members, but has "a capitalisation of zero", Blepp said. To keep things coordinated, the four companies agreed to some ground rules: they will all offer comparable licensing packages and have agreed not to interfere with the marketing and sales efforts of the other companies. Each will offer at least two CDs, with one containing the identical operating system software and others including the add-ons. Prices will be set individually, though, and each company will decide what additional software to include and how to market the product. "We hope that we will be living together and not stepping on each other's toes," Blepp said. "Everybody has their own strengths." But the group has not ruled out changes to its structure. "If our corporate clients want us to grow more together, then that's something we will need to discuss," he said. UnitedLinux 1.0 arrives in November.

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