August 13, 2002

OEone's Linux desktop experiment enters a new phase

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
One of the biggest complaints about popular Linux desktop environments is that they ape Windows and Mac instead of breaking new ground. OEone, a Canadian company founded by programmers who worked on the original, well-regarded CorelDraw application, has designed a desktop that breaks with all the "windowing" traditions. The desktop is now freely downloadable as a front end for Red Hat 7.x, with a Mandrake version scheduled for release within the next few months.
We wrote about an earlier version of the OEone desktop several months ago. Our original review copy of OEone came preloaded on a FuturePower "single unit" PC similar in appearance to an older iMac but not nearly as sleek. We liked the OEone desktop overall (even though we didn't think much of the hardware) despite several flaws, and have been waiting eagerly for a more polished version of OEone to hit the streets. It's here now.

Some of our biggest problems with OEone's earlier attempts had to do with lack of software choice. Some people are natural-born fuddy-duddies, and we are among them. We're used to XChat, and that's that. A desktop that wouldn't let us use our favorite IRC program just wouldn't do for us. We were and still are accustomed to StarOffice or OpenOffice. Yes, we could have installed them. opened up a terminal window, and run them that way, but we wanted to point and click; that is, after all, the point of having point and click applications. Now OEone gives us that ability -- along with Red Carpet-style automatic updates and dependency-satisfied RPM software installation for a wide enough range of applications that we can now use OEone not just as an "Internet Appliance" front end, but as a complete, ultra-efficient desktop for general purpose home and office computing.

Talking with OEone CEO Eid Eid

That's his real name, just as "Griffith Griffith" was the real name of the person after whom the famous Griffith Park in Los Angeles was named. Eid worked for Corel for years, and along the way became a devoted Linux user. He has long felt that that the interface on most computers was obsolete. In today's world, he says, "the Internet is the universal interface, and the browser is the platform."

Eid does not claim he and his people came up with this idea. "We are really confident that the world is moving in this direction with or without us," he says. "We did not invent it. We just saw it coming."

He is also a major convergence fan who expects the line between TVs, stereos, and PCs to become much more fuzzy in the future than they are today. Already, he says, you can use OEone with any video card or TV tuner card that supports Video for Linux as a "time shift" TV program recorder. With a large enough hard drive, you could use your Linux computer (running OEone) in place of a TiVO or a VCR. Eid is proud of this feature, and hopes it is especially interesting to makers of set-top boxes he hopes will license OEone technology and use it as the base of their systems.

OEMs are where OEone hopes to get the bulk of its income one day, along with custom Linux installations for companies and institutions that are fed up with Microsoft's recent licensing changes and are frantically casting about for a user-friendly Open Source desktop alternative. Eid believes many (if not most) corporate IT people are already "sold" on Linux and Open Source, with most of the remaining resistance coming from non-technical desktop users. "Now," says Eid, "IT managers have enough motivation to say to users, 'You have no choice but to learn the new system.'" And Eid hopes plenty of them turn to OEone, because the learning curve for this new desktop is as close to zero as it can possibly be, no matter what kind of operating system a user has been accustomed to in the past.

When it comes to answering the chronic "but will it work with Microsoft Exchange?" question that has derailed so many potential corporate desktop migrations to Linux, Eid is not shy about saying, "You don't need
Exchange. There are many Linux alternatives." Sure, he says, you need to use IMAP email in most corporate environments, and you need group calendars and schedulers, but he says OEone's Home Base (server) software can take care of that with no problem -- and take care of the chronic, "But can I take my work files home and use them there?" question, too, because you can access OEone's Home Base servers through any browser, using any operating system.

Eid is also talking to AOL. Imagine a PC with a desktop based on a Mozilla or Netscape browser, one with an AOL logo on it, that is as tightly integrated with the AOL service as Microsoft would like all PCs to be with its own .NET, MSN, and Passport services. Or imagine that OEone-based PC tied to any other large ISP or even sold by a company like Wal-Mart or another retailer as part of a package that included everything needed for home computing and Internet access in one easy-to-learn, low-cost package, including data backup and recovery, automatic software updates, and everything else most people need from a computer. It could happen. It wouldn't even be hard to do, using work OEone has already done.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us...

Right now, the big OEone push is to get lots of OEone desktops onto computers all over the United States and the rest of the world, and lots of developers to work on modifications and extensions to the basic OEone software. The licensing is right: OEone software is triple-licensed under GPL, LGPL, and the Mozilla Public License (MPL) that allows for commercial licensing of derivative products.

OEone is giving all downloaders 60 days of free access to their online software update, file backup, and "access from anywhere" service. Naturally, the OEone people hope you'll love it so much that you'll pay a nominal sum, say $20 per year, to go on using it, and that someday you'll be willing to pay as much as $69 per year, an amount Eid says the company's marketing surveys show individual users are willing to pay for what they offer. He also says, "Right now it's a penetration issue," so they are keeping the price low.

A big point Eid makes over and over about this latest release is that it holds to the promise OEone has always made to the Open Source community: that OEone's work would be released under a free license. Okay. Promise kept.

A second big point is that by offering, in essence, something that works on top of Red Hat -- and soon Mandrake -- OEone skips the endless hardware detection and installation hassles that plague developers who have a great Linux software or desktop idea and try to put out a complete distribution instead of sticking to what they know best, namely their own software. (If anyone should know this, it's a group of former Corel employees, right?) The competition OEone faces is from KDE and Gnome, not any of the distribution publishers, and even the competition with Ximian, the for-profit company that grew out of Gnome, is not really competition, because OEone uses (with permission) Ximian's Red Carpet software as the basis for their automatic software installation and upgrade system and, says Eid, hopes to merge that slightly forked version of Red Carpet back into the main development tree before long.

There's still work to do

OEone is a fully functional Linux desktop right now, but it is so different from other PC desktops that it hardly competes with any of the existing ones. Maybe it's the wave of the future, and maybe not. It represents both promise to users and a threat to all operating system developers, because it is a desktop that is not really tied to any one operating system. Eid says OEone could be ported to Windows in three months, if and when he and his people have the time and desire (or a customer comes along and pays them for the port). Presumably a port to Mac OSX, which is based on BSD Unix, would take even less time and effort.

Imagine users moving from Linux to Unix to Mac to Windows computers, using the exact same desktop on all of them, using OpenOffice on all of them (once the OpenOffice Mac OSX port is ready), seeing either their own or company-mandated customized software packages and desktop themes on all of them, using cross-platform personalized features, and having all of those features at their fingertips no matter what operating system is beneath their desktops at any given moment.

This is a grand vision, and it is entirely feasible. OEone's desktop looks the way it does because the company ran focus groups and this is what the users in those groups chose, not because this particular look and feel is the only one you can make with OEone's software. Both free and commercial software developers are welcome to make all the changes they want; to put this over here and that over there; to use their own favorite colors; to make any themes they please; to customize OEone's software any way they want, the same way they can now customize Mozilla.

I would not want to be in Microsoft's shoes if OEone manages to pull off this coup, because the end result would be a world where the desktop operating system doesn't matter, and in a world where more and more software is becoming browser-accessible (including Microsoft's, through .NET) it is only a matter of time until this happens, whether under OEone's aegis or under someone else's.

This story was written before the final release of the new, freely downloadable OEone desktop -- and before OEone's Web site was revised to reflect the new offering. Check OEone.com for download links, brochures, Flash "tours" of the new desktop, and all that groovy stuff. OEone says its new servers will handle almost any load anyone throws at them -- and it's expecting the load to be pretty heavy once word of their new, free download gets out.

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