Xandros - the Linux company that isn't
'Users don't care about Linux'
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."
Where the rice is
There is, it would seem, plenty of rice to be had from doing custom Linuxes and application stacks for OEMs and ODMs that are building all kinds of computing devices. Enough to support some 200 employees and development offices in San Diego (from its Linspire acquisition  last July) and Taipei. That's twice as many employees as the company had this time last year. (Xandros, which is headquartered in New York, is privately held and does not give out its financials).
Smith says that a big part of the value that Xandros can deliver to OEMs and ODMs comes from that Linspire distro and its Click 'n Run (CNR) application library. The customized OSes that Xandros is making are better than Windows XP, are branded Xandros, and are designed for small 7- to 10-inch screens, unlike Windows XP, where you can "hardly see anything but the Start button."
And that CNR technology has allowed Xandros to create custom, fully-branded application download stores for its OEM and ODM customers, which lets them sell and support add-ons to their devices - perhaps where the real profits come from with smart phones and smartbooks.
This sure doesn't sound like the same company that, presumably, bought Linspire to take on Windows on the desktop last summer because it seemed pretty clear that Windows Vista was not the be-all, end-all. And Smith is quite proud of the business that Xandros has done in such a short time thanks to netbooks. "We have the largest paid installed base of consumer Linux users," boasts Smith. "We've got millions of these things out there, and while Ubuntu has a lot, too, most of theirs are free."
Xandros is particularly pumped about smartbooks, which is the name for very inexpensive computers that are cheaper than netbooks - something on the order of $150 to $200. But providing all the things that modern computing users need (like access to the Web and office automation and entertainment software working over 3G networks) and not trying to engineer for things they don't need (such as running Windows XP). Which is why Xandros was demonstrating its custom OS and app stacks running on Qualcomm's Snapdragon and Freescale's Babbage ARM variants as well as Intel's Atom processors at the Computex event.
Xandros is also announcing a partnership with Synchronoss Technologies, which created the automatic activation of AT&T's 3G network on the Apple iPhone, to bring that same capability over to netbooks running Xandros Linux. If end users don't want to know they are running Linux, they also don't want to have to figure out how to log their netbooks and smartbooks into 3G and 4G carrier networks or have to take the devices into a reseller store to do it or mess around with dongles. They want to turn the box on, pick a carrier, and log in to the network.
Windows-based PC and laptop users want the same instant-on access to the Internet, and that is why Xandros created Presto, which loads fast and gives Windows users a way to turn on a machine and access a small Linux instance on their machine. Presto started shipping in late April and has Web, email, Skype, and RealPlayer as well as access to Windows files - all without having to boot Windows.
In effect, Presto puts a software-based netbook inside your PC, and it runs as an executable on Windows XP or Vista, so it doesn't mess with Windows. At $19.95 a pop, Presto is a much easier sell, it would seem, than trying to convince Windows shops to load Xandros Professional Desktop on top of Windows and forgetting everything they knew about Windows and having to learn the Way of Linux.
Xandros is still selling and supporting its Scalix email server and Bridgeways systems management tools, just like it is still offering its general purpose variant of Debian for desktops and servers. ®