Linux gets help from Mac veterans

For the past few years, Linux proponents have trumpeted the merits of their grassroots, Unix-like operating system. It's free, it's fast, and because it enjoys broad support among programmers, bugs are easy to fix. But Linux's command-line interface may have put off many power users, keeping the operating system from gaining wider acceptance.

That could soon change. Former Apple Computer employees Andy Hertzfeld, Michael Boich, Bud Tribble, and Susan Kare have teamed up at a new company called Eazel. Their goal? To build a new graphical shell, code-named Nautilus, for Gnome 2.0 (a popular Linux desktop environment and application framework), and to offer Internet services that will help users install, configure and update the operating system.

Eazel's core management team has experience building an interface simple enough for anyone to use. Boich, the company's president and CEO, founded Apple's software-evangelism group for the Macintosh. Hertzfeld designed and implemented much of the original Mac system software, while Tribble managed the original Mac software team. Kare worked on the first icon designs for the Mac OS.

The question now is can these Apple veterans do for Linux what they did for the Mac? "The graphical shell is the glove through which the user touches the rest of the system," says Hertzfeld, who has kept the title "software wizard" from his days as a Mac programmer. "It really is a key point in terms of usability. But the toughest part is the system's care, feeding, and maintenance. The real opportunity here is to use the Internet to provide the knowledge base that can keep your computer running smoothly without any technological expertise on your part."

Programmers and developers make up the bulk of Linux users. About 89 million copies of operating systems were sold last year, according to research from IDC. Linux made up 4 per cent (the Mac OS by comparison accounted for 5 per cent).

Eazel believes that the open-source nature of Linux is the OS's strength. With open-source software, developers are free to distribute and change code. Therefore, the software-development process becomes a collaboration, and no single company really owns the code.

A big focus at Eazel is developing custom interfaces for various file types. For example, the file manager might recognise a directory as being made up of music files and display it in a particular way. Users could then view the files in a mode that resembled an MP3 player, complete with song titles and running lengths.

Gnome 2.0m - including Nautilus - will be free for people to change and distribute. Eazel plans to turn a profit by providing Internet-based services to Linux users. "Our overall goal is to make Linux and open-source software in general easier to use," Hertzfeld says.

For now, Gnome is aimed at current Linux users. In time, Eazel hopes it will appeal to novice computer users. A beta release of Nautilus is scheduled for mid year, and all the components of Gnome 2.0 should be ready for distribution by September.