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Xandros - the Linux company that isn't

'Users don't care about Linux'

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Xandros has spent the better part of a decade trying to take Linux to the masses and build itself up as a serious contender in the commercial Linux racket. And now, after the advent of Linux-based netbooks and an evolving new class of devices that are being dubbed smartbooks, Xandros is getting another chance at going mainstream and taking Linux with it. Even if people don't know they're using Linux.

The Computex trade show is going on this week in Taipei, Taiwan, where a lot of laptops, netbooks, smartbooks, and other tiny computing devices are designed and manufactured, and Xandros is there, running around with partners demonstrating its Moblin 2.0-compliant Linux variant and the applications that run atop it as well as talking up its partnerships with Intel (and its Atom processor) as well as Freescale Semiconductor and Qualcomm (which are making smartbooks based on ARM processors).

At this point in its history - and given the uptake that Xandros has seen for its software thanks to it being tapped as the platform for the original Asus Eee PC netbook - it is reasonable to ask if Xandros actually cares all that much about Xandros Desktop Professional and Xandros Server V2.

While Xandros is not going to turn down a sale for any of its products, and it fully supports what it sells, just like other Linux distributors. Jordan Smith, product marketing manager for OEM solutions at Xandros, is perfectly frank about what Xandros is doing. "We are kind of getting away from being a Linux company, and we are more interested in presenting a user experience," explains Smith. "Users don't care about Linux."

Well, most of them don't, as the pitiful uptake of Linux among consumers and corporations on desktops and laptops shows - outside of software development and applications such as call centers or embedded systems like cash registers. What Xandros has figured out, after years of trying to fight Windows on the desktop, is that you have to win with Linux on other platforms and bury it deep behind an application layer to insulate people from Linux. As it has done well (but not brilliantly) with the Asus Eee PC.

Xandros was spun out of graphics and office automation software maker Corel in 2001, and the company (along with its Linspire acquisition) tried to make Debian Linux as friendly (or familiar or as frustrating or something like that) as Windows. The company's experience as a commercial operating system distributor has served it well as it creates custom app stacks for companies making small computing devices.

This is not necessarily an easy business. According to Smith, Xandros has created over 200 variants of its Linux distro for Asus, in 24 different languages with all manner of character sets - something you have to do in the commercial electronics space. You have to do lots of languages for a commercial Linux distro too. But as Smith says, Xandros has learned from hard experience that "there is no money to be made with a general purpose desktop Linux" because of the massive matrix of possible hardware you also need to support to be a general purpose OS.

"Doing that general purpose operating system is a nightmare, and you lose your shirt on it," Smith explains. "At the end of the day, you have to do something that puts rice in the bowl."

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