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Google at work on desktop Linux

Search engine giant preps own version of Ubuntu

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Google is preparing its own distribution of Linux for the desktop, in a possible bid to take on Microsoft in its core business - desktop software.

A version of the increasingly popular Ubuntu desktop Linux distribution, based on Debian and the Gnome desktop, it is known internally as 'Goobuntu'.

Google has confirmed it is working on a desktop linux project called Goobuntu, but declined to supply further details, including what the project is for.

It's possible that it's just one of the toys Googleplex engineers play with on Fridays, when they get time off from buffing the search engine code or filtering out entries about Tiananmen Square.

It could be for wider deployments on the company's own desktops, as an alternative to Microsoft, but still for internal use only.

But it's possible Google plans to distribute it to the general public, as a free alternative to Windows.

Google has already demonstrated an interest in building a presence on the desktop. At CES Las Vegas this month, it announced the Google Pack, a collection of desktop software bundled together for easy downloading.

The pack includes many apps which compete directly with the Windows bundle, such as Google Talk, Google Desktop, Mozilla Firefox, the Trillian instant messenger client, RealPlayer, and Picasa photo management.

Going the whole hog and distributing a complete desktop software suite would merely be another step down the same path.

However, entering the desktop software world would be a huge step. Making Goobuntu as easy to use as XP will require a lot more development. It's unlikely to be ready for showtime any time soon, and it's possible Google itself hasn't finalised where the project should go.

Whatever Google's intentions, the input of Google engineers and developers, writing new features and fixing bugs, will be a huge boost to the Ubuntu project.

Ubuntu, funded by the South African internet multimillionaire and occasional cosmonaut Mark Shuttleworth, is already emerging as a leader in the desktop Linux world.

It has built considerable momentum in the Linux community, and is starting to appear more widely. Shuttleworth is seeking to persuade white-box PC manufacturers to start shipping machines with Ubuntu preinstalled.

It is top of the Distrowatch download chart, is installed on up to six million computers, and doubling every eight months, according to estimates from Shuttleworth's company, Canonical.

It has spawned a number of different offshoots, including Xubuntu, Kubuntu and Edubuntu (for schools).

The word Ubuntu means "humanity to others" in several African languages, including Zulu and Xhosa. It's one of the founding principles of post-apartheid South Africa. The origin of the word 'Goobuntu' is not clear, though it does not appear in online Zulu dictionaries.

The Goobuntu.com domain has been registered in the past couple of days, though presumably not by Google. It now redirects to a Cuban portal. Perhaps Google will have to think of a new name for the system before they launch it to the wider public. ®

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