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Desktop Summit If you can't beat them or join them, then do something weird.

This appears to be the rallying cry accompanying the launch of Linspire Five-0. The operating system, due out this quarter, will ship with a number of additions you might expect from a version of Linux aimed at average consumers. Things such as improved music, photo and DVD applications, better Wi-Fi support and a fancy instant messaging product are there. What you might not expect - the weird part of the equation - is a new package called MP3beamer that turns any Linspire PC into a music hub for the home.

"I think this is the product Linux needs to go mainstream," said Linspire CEO Michael Robertson, during a keynote speech here at the Desktop Summit.

Robertson possesses an unrivaled well of optimism, but at least he's not touting a network-enabled watch that makes you pay $9.95 per month to find out what the weather is like. That would be ridiculous.

Unlike Microsoft's pricey media centers that do a bit of everything, Linspire's MP3beamer aims square at the music market only. The concept is pretty standard. It's a music appliance. All the tunes in a home funnel back to the MP3 server, and the server connects to a variety of devices.

Linspire has done a nice job of supporting a wide range of hardware with Beamer - a feat made possible by its focus on MP3s and not proprietary formats. Robertson demonstrated a MP3beamer server synchronizing music on a Windows PC running iTunes, on a Verizon cell phone, an iPod and a stereo system. Not bad. The MP3Beamer software even triggers its own folder to pop up in iTunes.

In addition, the software makes ripping new songs easy. When a CD is inserted, MP3beamer goes to work on its own, adding the songs to the appliance and then looking out over the network to see what devices need the songs. Users can stream tunes from the MP3beamer server or download them to a device.

The software also works well with that of Robertson's latest venture MP3tunes. No surprise there. You can have a look at the form MP3beamer devices will take here. It's your basic PC loaded with Linspire's software. Linspire will depend on partners for this type of customized hardware, but any customer can turn a regular PC into a MP3beamer just by installing the software.

Linspire hasn't totally settled on the software's price. Customers will likely have to pay about $20 on top of the $50 standard price for the OS. Those who already subscribe to Linspire's CNR software download service will not receive a discount on MP3beamer.

Away from MP3beamer, Linspire has cleaned up the look and feel of its OS with Version Five-0. The company added subtle changes to the GUI (graphical user interface) that make things such as distinguishing between menus easier. The OS also has the latest versions of OpenOffice, Lsongs, Lphoto, CNR and RealPlayer.

Customers will be pleased to find a Wi-Fi manager that locates all available networks on its own and makes it simple to switch from one to the other. They'll also see a new Hot Words tool that provides a kind of universal spellcheck service regardless of what application is being used. Last but not least, is an instant messaging client that has a built-in free long distance VoIP tool.

"We are easily the most polished Linux," Robertson said.

Over the next year, Linspire hopes to sign up more retailers to help it move the OS. The software is a great answer for people who want to give Linux a try but don't have the technical know-how to deal with less fluffy distributions.

"We want to bring it to the mainstream," Robertson said. "We want to do for Linux what AOL did for ISPs."

This approach hasn't inspired many "true" Linux geeks who love to mess with code and battle through tough technical challenges. With any luck though, Linspire may find a way to add more choice on the OS front with the Five-O release. We have a beta in hand and will write up a review shortly. ®

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