One of the founders of the open-source software initiative is planning to release a new version of Linux to challenge Red Hat's enterprise version of the operating system, and fill the hole left in the consumer market since Red Hat announced last week it would no longer sell a consumer version in retail stores.

The new version of Linux, called UserLinux, is being proposed by open-source sage Bruce Perens, who claims to have the backing of some of the world's largest companies, across a number of business sectors. UserLinux, which will be paid for with multimillion-dollar donations from Perens' corporate backers, will be free for unlimited use, and will be certified by large computer makers.

The companies sponsoring UserLinux are eager for an alternative to Microsoft products, which they see as expensive, buggy, vulnerable to viruses and difficult to deploy and maintain, said Perens, speaking at the first meeting of the Desktop Linux Consortium. He said the companies will also welcome an alternative to Red Hat and other commercial versions of Linux, which come with "odious" terms, limiting the number of seats and requiring expensive service contracts that are voided if users attempt to modify the software.

Perens would not name his corporate backers when he made his call for participation in UserLinux at the Desktop Linux Consortium meeting.

Perens is the acting executive director of the consortium, which met at Boston University's Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, Corporate Education Center this week. The organization wants to promote Linux as a more reliable, more easily managed alternative to Windows. Vendors at the meeting included Novell, IBM, SuSE Linux, Hewlett-Packard, Red Hat and Samba.

The companies supporting UserLinux will also contribute developers to the project. In return, they'll get an operating system with unlimited seats and options for paid technical support, ideally, from a variety of competing service providers.

UserLinux should be available in six months, and discs containing a consumer version of UserLinux could hit retail store shelves shortly thereafter. Those discs would basically sell at cost, or as little as $10.

UserLinux will be based on Debian GNU/Linux, a long-standing Linux project with roughly 1,000 developers behind it. UserLinux would only depart from Debian for software that is not open source, such as 3-D drivers, said Perens.

But for an open-source coder and business-culture outsider, Perens' insider connections may be deep enough to make UserLinux work: This past year, Perens has worked as a paid Linux consultant to IBM, Novell, Borland and NTT, the Japanese telecommunications company.

Consortium organizers presented case studies of what they see as Linux desktop success stories, including a cardiology practice based in upstate New York. They also offered free memberships to anyone who would commit to their evangelical effort.

"I crave a viable, alternative, competitive landscape," said Jeremy White, the interim chairman of the Desktop Linux Consortium.

White called the consortium a digital barn raising that -- like its agricultural equivalent -- will benefit everyone in the community.

But believers in desktop Linux have a long row to hoe.

Nat Friedman, who sold his desktop Linux software company, Ximian, to Novell last summer, said that fans of Linux are exaggerating its growth in business desktop market share.

"The press likes to portray this as some kind of David and Goliath story, (with Linux slaying Microsoft)," said Friedman, "but that sets up unrealistic expectations."

Friedman, who now works for Novell, said he distrusts many predictions by industry analysts and Linux promoters. He noted that Google Zeitgeist, which includes a list of the PC operating systems used to access the search engine, gives Linux a mere 1 percent market share.

Indeed, recent news for desktop Linux proponents was bleak.

Last week, the CEO of Red Hat, Matthew Szulik, suggested that users stick to Windows for their desktops at home. The company also announced that it would no longer sell a consumer version of Linux, but will instead focus on its enterprise server business. (Red Hat will, however, continue to direct the development of Fedora, a version of Linux for hobbyists.)

Developers and IT administrators here were also concerned that Novell's acquisition last week of SuSE Linux will turn that company's business Linux products into a de facto proprietary operating system.

Perens said he is less discouraged by the recent news than he is motivated to stop a movement toward "proprietary open-source code," as vendors commodify the work developers have done for free.

"The people who develop open-source code," Perens said, "are getting tired of being told that they have to pay to use it."

Source: Wired News

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