By Grant Gross
When Linux becomes easier to use than a Macintosh, the last barrier to "world domination" will have disappeared, says Andy Hertzfeld, designer of much of the original Mac system software. And Hertzfeld believes Linux's day is not far away.
Hertzfeld is a co-founder of Eazel, a project designed to make Linux easier to use on the desktop, and he has little doubt his team will succeed.
"The ultimate goal is to make free software easier to use than the mainstream, proprietary systems," he says. "Our goal is not to catch up to Macintosh, but to be the best thing, period."
That day is two to three years away, Hertzfeld estimates, and with Linux's current growth rates, it's not hard to envision what Linux creator Linus Torvalds jokingly called "world domination."
"If that growth rate continues for just a couple of years, I think we'll see Linux in a very healthy market share," says Hertzfeld, Eazel's software wizard (Yes, that's his title).
Closer still is Linux catching up to Windows in ease of use, he says. "In the next year, what Eazel is about is having [Linux GUIs] pass windows," he adds, "which isn't all that hard, because Windows is a mess."
A man on a mission, Hertzfeld rapid-fires his vision for Eazel during a recent phone interview. The short version: Eazel was founded in August 1999 by Hertzfeld and two other members of the original Macintosh team, Mike Boich, Eazel's CEO, and Bud Tribble, Eazel's vice president of engineering. All three had gone on to work for some other high-gloss technology projects, and their decision to focus on Linux has generally met positive reviews.
From Upside: "When is a startup more than a startup? When that startup is kissed with the golden glow of success long before it retains a public relations firm ... And once in a very long while, the founders might have the missionary zeal to want to change the world in very seminal ways. Eazel is one of those startups."
ABC News.com, quoting Cormac Foster, technology analyst with Jupiter Communications: "But the Eazel programmers' pedigree makes them a group to watch. The company could be a key figure in future competitive battles."
And Forbes.com quoting Open Source evangelist Eric S. Raymond: "Andy Hertzfeld and his crew showed the world how to do GUIs right back in 1984, for them to bending their efforts to Linux now is probably the best possible news for Linux on the desktop."
A year after launching the company, the Eazel founders are touting two main development efforts. One is Nautilus, a desktop user interface built on the GNOME environment that will be included with the GNOME 1.4 release due out this fall.
Among other features, Nautilus will focus on file management, allowing for quick document scanning, "virtual folders" that free users from a strict file hierarchy, and file emblems and directory notes used to create a personalized file system. The Nautilus user interface will also allow multiple user levels for optimized interfaced for both novice and expert users, and files that can be represented by their content, such as image, text, or music.
The second major development effort is the subscription-based Eazel Services, where the company's money-making business plan lies. It will include software update notification, system inventory management to help users maintain optimal performance, and integrated network storage, allowing file sharing across local and remote systems. Right now, it's difficult for novice Linux users to install new software, and the system degrades as incompatibilities build up. "It becomes this version number soup that only a technically oriented person understands," he says.
Eazel is a private company with venture funding from Accel Partners, and Hertzfeld says he doesn't care about taking his company to almighty IPO. "That's not on the foreseeable horizon," he says. "What we want to do is create a great user experience, and if we do that, the finances will take care of themselves."
Without fantasizing too much, Hertzfeld can envision a day when Linux "ends up in the tens to hundreds of millions of users. I don't think that there's any limits."
He adds: "We can take it much farther than we could take any other platform, because there are no walls. Contrast that to developing on Windows or the Macintosh, where you can run into roadblocks, where people will say, 'You don't have the right to make changes.' "