- by Joe Barr -
I ran across a curious website recently: OpenLindows.com. The name alone intrigued me. It gave rise to speculation about a weird mix of free-as-in-beer and free-as-in-speech alternative to the $49/year Click-N-Run software subscription offered by LindowsOS, the most Windows-like/proprietary Linux distribution out there. This is a report on what I found, and perhaps even more importantly, what I didn't.
Updated: originally I reported a price of $99/year for Click-N-Run. That's the old price. It now sells for $49/year.
When you visit OpenLindows.com for the first time, you can't help but notice two things: its reason for being and a disclaimer. Right up front it says "OpenLindows.com is the home of the Open Source development for Lindows OS." Down at the bottom of the page it says: "This site is not officially endorsed by Lindows.com."
I clicked on Download on OpenLindows.com and was presented with a list of five packages available for download. I also learned of two related sites: a banner ad touted LindowsUser.com" and just above the list of packages was a suggestion to "Visit: www.lindowsdownload.com." All three sites are registered to Peter Toth in the UK.
I clicked on the link to LindowsDownload.com and found mention of more packages being available for download: xine, Mozilla, Scribus, and a few others. I also noted yet another related site: LindowsClub.com. I began to feel a little bit dizzy when I clicked on the link to LindowsClub.com and found nothing but a suggestion that I should visit LindowsDownload.com.
I went back to LindowsDownload.com to look a little closer. I found instructions on how to set up apt-get so that it visits the OpenLindows.com repository. Checking the list of packages which are available, I found it contained 101 entries. Not a huge number, perhaps, but a good start at least.
Forum traffic at OpenLindows.com (click on Community to get there) is not heavy, but there is activity. There are recent threads in the Support and General News topics as people who discover the site ask about specific packages or problems. Forum traffic may be light, but questions do get answered.
Three email inquires - one directly to Peter Toth and the other two to email@example.com - went unanswered. So did a note I sent to Cheryl G. Schwarzman, Director of Public Relations at LindowsOS asking exactly what the relationship was between LindowsOS and the OpenLindows sites.
The public relations strategy of LindowsOS seems to be to play to the general/Windows trade press and to ignore the Linux press. Given that their target audience is found among Windows users rather than those already using Linux, that may be not a bad plan. So maybe my query to Schwarzman went unanswered because of that reticence. Or maybe they just didn't want to say anything that might give OpenLindows more ink. That would make sense too.
LindowsOS is one of a number of commercial Linux offerings based on the very popular Debian GNU/Linux distribution. Partially because of all the competition, there are no large margins to be found on any Linux distribution. That makes the revenue stream generated by LindowsOS's Click-N-Run service all the more important. Free/open source alternatives like OpenLindows.com represent a threat to that income.
I kept going back to the OpenLindows sites, bouncing back and forth between them, looking for clues like I was on a scavenger hunt. Finally it dawned on me. What I had been missing all along was simply that something was missing. There was no community. The famous Linux community was invisible if it were present at all.
Linux users in general love to argue over our choices of distribution, the editor we use, the best email client, email server, and when to use what database manager. We like to throw our colors and defend our turf.
I saw none of that that in the OpenLindows forums. I googled the newsgroups for mention of OpenLindows. I found exactly one post which mentioned it. Too bad the name is not two words, it would qualify as a Googlewhack. I also looked for an #openlindows IRC channel on several different servers. I didn't find one.
The infrastructure is in place. In fact, the maze of related sites for OpenLindows.com would make a great framework for a commercial offering, let alone a home for a free software project. But it isn't happening. I don't know if the absence of community at OpenLindows.com is a reflection of the fact that LindowsOS users come from outside the Linux community to begin with, or if it's due to something else entirely. But I can tell you that while the lights are on, there doesn't appear to be anyone at home.
Joe Barr has been writing about technology for 10 years, and about Linux for five. His work has appeared in IBM Personal Systems Journal, LinuxGazette, LinuxWorld, Newsforge, phrack, SecurityFocus, and VARLinux.org. He is the founder of The Dweebspeak Primer, the official newsletter of the Linux Liberation Army.