Xandros buys Linspire – What does it mean for Linux?

Realising that it was futile to compete with Microsoft on the Windows platform, Cowpland's gambit was to hitch onto the rising star of Linux. Corel's initial Linux offering was a desktop version of Linux, built on Debian and KDE, with a much simplified installation procedure, and a proprietary file manager that looked and behaved like Windows Explorer.

Corel contributed a lot of code to the development of Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator) but did not feed its other proprietary extensions back to the community. A thorough port of WordPerfect to Linux might well have given Corel a springboard for Linux on the desktop. As it was, Corel chose to port versions of WordPerfect and CorelDraw to Linux on Wine.

Corel Linux was touted as the ideal distribution for the novice user coming over from Windows. Corel's proposition was to give away its version of Linux but to charge customers for support and proprietary applications, such as WordPerfect and CorelDraw. But Cowpland's wider prediction for the future was that Linux would be used in "the next generation of Internet appliances, like keyboard-equipped cell phones that can surf the Web."

Cowpland's target was that by 2005, Corel could hope "to reap 50 per cent of its revenues from Linux applications. This is the year when Internet appliances are going to take off," he predicted.

Dirty hands

Cowpland, and Corel, may have made the classic mistake of realising too early where the market was going, and running before the market could walk. Within months Cowpland was forced to step down from the company he had founded, vowing to devote his time to working with unspecified Linux start-ups. "Personally, I intend to get my hands really dirty with a lot of Linux technology," he told reporters. "I'm fascinated by the potential that's now emerging."

He was replaced as CEO by Corel's chief technology officer, Derek Burney. "Open-source software isn't a moneymaker", said Burney, "Microsoft's .Net strategy will change computing as we know it."

By this time, Microsoft, which had an interest in keeping WordPerfect afloat for antitrust reasons, had invested $135 million in Corel. According to Burney: "There is a contract that says we have to put the .Net framework into our major applications within six months of the release of .Net."

Shortly thereafter, Corel divested itself of its Linux distribution, and discontinued support for WordPerfect and CorelDraw on Linux. It has been assumed by many that this was an unwritten condition of Microsoft's investment in Corel.

In August 2001, Xandros Incorporated announced that it had secured the rights to Corel's Linux distribution and a US$10 million investment from Linux Global Partners, a Venture Capital firm. Like Corel, Xandros has its roots in Ottawa, Canada, and retained the majority of Corel's original Linux software development team. Linux Global Partners also invested heavily in other Linux companies, the best known of which are probably CodeWeavers and Ximian (before it was sold to Novell).

After the gold rush

Xandros has moved at its own pace, not making waves, offering solutions from desktop to server, with the objective of "selling Linux into a Windows world." Xandros is neatly configured, easy to use and popular with its own band of devotees, but contains proprietary extensions and a comparatively slow release cycle.

There was a short-lived community edition of Xandros, but for the most part Xandros has given the impression of keeping itself to itself, concentrating on its partnerships and enterprise sales, selling a boxed edition, based on ageing but stable versions of Debian, doing quite well and cranking up EOM deals with the likes of ASUS.

Linspire has been quite different, changing direction, fighting legal battles, making a lot of noise, and throwing tantrums from beyond the grave. If Kevin Carmody, the ex-CEO of Linspire, is to be believed, more legal battles may ensue from the takeover of Linspire by Xandros.

Linspire was founded by Michael Robertson. Robertson is a serial entrepreneur, whose other companies have included mp3.com, which was sold to Vivendi Universal for US$385 million, SIPphone, MP3tunes, and Ajax 13.

Carmody alleges that the sale of Linspire to Xandros was a unilateral decision by Robertson, without reference to other shareholders, and has a feast of other grievances which are detailed on his blog.

I must say goodbye

The biggest problem for Xandros and Linspire has been the "patent covenants" that both companies signed with Microsoft, and the detrimental effect that these agreements have had on ongoing relationships with the Linux user and developer communities.

Jeremy Allison of Samba made the point when he resigned from Novell over the same issue. "Whilst the Microsoft patent agreement is in place there is nothing we can do to fix community relations. And I really mean nothing," he wrote. "Until the patent provision is revoked, we are pariahs.... Unfortunately the time I am willing to wait for this agreement to be changed... has passed, and so I must say goodbye."

Xandros reportedly signed the deal with Microsoft so that it could license protocols to enable BridgeWays and Scalix to interoperate with Microsoft networks. Linspire signed up to gain access to "Microsoft technologies relating to VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol), Windows Media multimedia, and TrueType fonts."

As a final coup de grace, Linspire agreed that its distribution would default to Microsoft's Live.com search engine. Both Xandros and Linspire would have been better served by adopting the position taken by other Linux companies, which is that Microsoft's claims to patent infringements in GNU/Linux are entirely without merit. Any other deals can be judged on their own merits. No Linux company has yet been been sued for patent infringement by Microsoft, nor is likely to be.

Later Ubuntu, under the aegis of its parent company, Canonical, was reported to have made a deal to deploy Linspire's CNR, replete with Windows codecs, on Ubuntu distributions. This deal came to nothing.

Nonetheless, Eric Raymond, erstwhile spokesman and guru for open source, opponent of the GPL, and advocate of embedding proprietary blobs in free software, was paraphrased as saying "If that means paying licensing fees to the Microsofts of the world so that people can watch Windows media files, then so be it."

Raymond, who had previously been appointed a member of the "Freespire Leadership Board", also declared in a much mocked and intemperate address to the Fedora mailing-lists that: "Canonical's recent deal with Linspire, which will give Linux users legal access to WMF (Windows Media Format) and other key proprietary codecs, is precisely the sort of thing Red-Hat/Fedora could and should have taken the lead in. Not having done so bespeaks a failure of vision which I now believe will condemn Fedora to a shrinking niche in the future."

To which, Alan Cox, the best known of Linux kernel developers after Linus Torvalds, replied: "That would be because we believe in Free Software and doing the right thing (a practice you appear to have given up on). Maybe it is time the term 'open source' also did the decent thing and died out with you."

The latest release of Fedora has been widely praised...