February 16, 2000 6:10 PM PST

Apple, AOL veterans making Linux easy

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Veterans of Apple Computer and America Online are setting their sights on the Macintosh equivalent of Linux--in other words, a version of Linux your mother could use.

A start-up called Eazel is at work on a graphical user interface (GUI) for Linux that founders say will extend to every aspect of the Linux computing experience. The project is an extension of the Gnome user interface.

With the current Gnome and the competing KDE user interfaces for Linux, it's still hard to avoid typing in commands, an activity notoriously unpalatable to average users. Though showing some signs of growth for desktop use, Linux still is used predominantly on servers.

Eazel's technology and management team has deep roots in Apple and AOL, the two companies most famous for creating and marketing consumer-friendly computing products.

Chief executive Mike Boich joined Apple in 1982 and was an evangelist for the budding Macintosh project. "Software wizard" Andy Hertzfeld started at Apple in 1979, where he made Apple II peripherals and software, was a member of the original Macintosh team in 1981, and wrote much of the original Macintosh OS.

Another original employee of Eazel is board member Mike Homer, a senior vice president at AOL who joined the world's largest Internet service provider with its acquisition of Netscape Communications. At Netscape, Homer was in charge of the Netcenter portal. He also got his start at Apple, in 1982.

Eazel launched with seed money from its founders, as well as with investments from Ron Conway's Angel Investors, Sippl Macdonald Ventures, and former Macromedia chairman John "Bud" Colligan (a board member of CNET, publisher of News.com, and now a partner with the venture capital firm Accel Partners).

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Eazel is in the process of closing a round of venture funding with a "major" VC firm to the tune of about $10 million, Boich said in an interview. He would not identify the firm.

Eazel is not alone in trying to deliver user-friendly Linux. Other companies have seen the opportunity in extending the open-source operating system to the consumer desktop market.

Corel in November released a version CNET's Linux Centerof Linux that has won some plaudits for being user-friendly. It garnered Corel $3.2 million in revenue through the end of 1999, the company said, and Corel has inked deals to improve support for mainstream hardware.

MandrakeSoft, a French firm with a U.S. presence, is marketing its Linux product as "a complete pre-configured graphical Linux operating system (that is) easy to install, easy to use and stable."

Boich said his company aims to take ease of use to a new level and plans ultimately to surpass Microsoft's Windows OS and the Mac in simplicity.

"We are doing something really comprehensive," Boich said. "We're writing the software that serves as the file manager and the graphical shell. There are some graphical environments out there, but they don't cover everything. We're going to provide GUI coverage for the whole system."

Eazel will develop its software under the open-source model that has fueled Linux's popularity among computer enthusiasts and its rise in the corporate marketplace. Because the software will be free, the company will follow the lead of other Linux outfits, such as Red Hat and VA Linux Systems, in earning its revenue through services.

Eazel was the brainchild of Mac OS co-author Hertzfeld, who became interested in open source when Netscape released its Communicator Web browser source code through the Mozilla.org group in 1998.

"He saw tremendous need for usability work on Linux," Boich said. "Today it's more of a back-office operating system, but we believe the potential to be a lot more than that."

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

 

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