January 24, 2006

Technalign is trying to profit by retailing MEPIS

Author: Tina Gasperson

Dianne Ursini, CEO and founder of Technalign, wants to capture the desktop Linux market, and she believes MEPIS is the distribution that will catapult her company to the top. Technalign is the official distributor of the boxed retail version of MEPIS, and while the company hasn't turned a profit selling Linux yet, Ursini says it is "turning around."

Ursini started her career in IT back in 1971 as a computer operator, and became a programmer by the mid-'70. By the early '80s she was a systems analyst. She started her first solo endeavor, Computer Systems for Business, before moving on to Dunn and Bradstreet as a director of strategic technology.

After a stint at co.brand.it as the chief operations officer, she found herself a casualty of the post-9/11 recession. Shortly after that, she discovered open source software, thanks to her son Preston. "He's a big FreeBSD guy," she says. "I didn't like it because there was no GUI, but later on he said, 'Here, try this Mandrake,' and I really liked it."

At the time Ursini was working with Chris DeVone of Heavy Industrial, an IT consultant and software developer out of New Jersey. DeVone wanted to migrate from Windows servers. Ursini had an idea -- why not use Mandrake? As she traversed the Linux learning curve while consulting with DeVone on his server migration, she began to believe that Linux was going to be really big on the desktop. So Ursini founded Technalign in 2003, with a vision to become the only United States distributor for Mandrakelinux, now known as Mandriva.

"I thought it could give Microsoft a run for its money. There's a need for this type of technology. It actually keeps the market in check, because when Redmond gets 90% of the market it causes a very non-competitive environment, and that's where we are now. Software prices are much higher than they should be, and Linux can bring them down."

Ursini designed Technalign to provide packaging, marketing, and technical support for Mandrake. She worked to get the boxed product picked up in retail stores, where she says "smaller is better," but without much success. She also went the eBay route, and met with challenges there also. Ursini was disturbed to find lots of home-style resellers taking advantage of the open nature of Linux and auctioning copies of Mandrake dirt-cheap.

She told eBay the sellers were in violation of Mandrake's trademark, and asked to have them removed. "We took them down," she says. "Mandrake was selling its corporate server product for $695. Those people were taking copies of them and selling them on eBay for $15 or $20. These were not the open product. They were selling my line for a few bucks, and that was hurting sales. It really hurt Mandrake. We were being good corporate citizens in taking them down."

Some people, especially those sellers who were affected by Ursini's move, didn't agree with her take on it, based on posts collected from the MandrakeClub message boards.

Ursini says that the community doesn't understand the necessity of her move against the resellers. "I call it the Star Trek syndrome -- you know, it's the year 2400, we all live on the starship. We do what we want and we don't have to worry about money anymore. That's what a lot of people believe, I think."

Good citizens or not, Technalign and Mandrake didn't hit it off, and the two parted ways after only a year. "The way Mandrake does business is not conducive to a successful deployment in the North American continent," Ursini says. "I don't know how else to say it without sounding negative. They have a different methodology in how they make money. They said they think they can be successful just selling product on the Internet. We believe the customer needs what they need and we have to provide them the support to do it."

A spokesperson for Mandriva confirmed that Ursini had been a legitimate distributor. "We jointly decided to terminate the relationship because the results were not up to our expectations. We still have some financial issues to be settled with Technalign, so we do not wish to comment further until those are solved."

After the break up, Ursini went looking for a new distribution to fulfill her vision. She found MEPIS. "I tried it, and I was blown away," she says. "I approached Warren and told him it was the best distro I ever saw in my life." Warren Woodford is the creator and sustainer of MEPIS, who started out with "no budget and zero marketing expenditures," according to a report at MadPenguin.org. Ursini convinced Woodford to let Technalign become its official retail distributor in May 2005. She speaks in glowing terms of her relationship with Woodford, calling it "the best partnership ever formed. It's the synergy you don't see anywhere; I can start a sentence and Warren can finish it before I get to the end of it. I don't know how to explain it other than that any idea either one of us has had has already been thought of by the other."

Armed with her new connection to MEPIS, Ursini went hunting on eBay again. "They were getting the release candidates and selling them for $15 or $20. There's a lot of non-open source stuff in [MEPIS], including the installer," she says. "In the beginning we'd get calls from people saying, 'I bought the product and I want my support.' But we'd tell them, 'You bought it from some guy on eBay, go to him for support.'" Today, eBay is virtually bereft of MEPIS, except for the boxed sets from Technalign, selling for $79.95 and $199.95 for the server edition. "It was a lot easier than with Mandrake," Ursini says. "We don't want to inhibit the community in any way. There are people selling it, but it's no more than $3. We're trying to control people from trying to make profits on something they shouldn't."

According to Ursini, part of the agreement between the two companies is that, once Technalign begins making a profit, Woodford and MEPIS will get paid. "We're starting to see the fruits of our labor," Ursini says. "With the support package and better operating system, there's been an increase in revenue last year of 120%." She's optimistic about MEPIS selling big in retail outlets and on eBay, and says it won't be long before Technalign starts making money and passing it on to MEPIS. "Warren will get 50% of the profits."

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