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Eazel's Business Model
Pages: 1, 2

Linux for the masses

The phrase "Linux users who are not virtuosos" sounds like an oxymoron. But for Eazel to be successful, appealing to those types of users will have to be the core of their business.

The virtuosos, after all, have in large part already made up their minds about Linux and, by extension, Nautilus as well. But the majority won't be that technically inclined.

Dan Kuznetzky, vice president of systems software at International Data Corp., argues that the most likely place for Linux to gain market share is in places where the computing needs are more transaction-oriented. The typical user in those situations is not an expert, but rather someone like a doctor, lawyer, or nurse.

"Does a nurse know or care what operating system she's using when running a patient tracking system? She doesn't care, she just wants it to work. If an error message showed up saying 'you're missing a dll,' she'd call security and say, 'Someone stole one of our dlls.'"

If that type of person has Linux at home, what is their motivation for subscribing to a never-ending set of updates if their computer, applications, and operating system already do what they're supposed to?

Eazel's answer to that is two-fold.

First, Nautilus's user interface and network integration are all designed to make it trivially easy for people to find, download, and install the software they want (provided, of course, it works as well as advertised).

Second, Andy Hertzfeld, billed as Eazel's "Software Wizard" on the company's Web site, says that as users download more software and plug-ins, they start to disagree with one another. The resulting problems are hard to troubleshoot, and frustrating for the user. Eazel's service will try to solve more of these disagreements before they even arise.

Will people pay for that kind of service? Bill Claybrook, a research director with the Aberdeen Group, thinks they will. "Many of the new people using Linux aren't necessarily techies," he says. "Businesspeople won't do it themselves. They will pay money to have it all on a CD, to get the documentation and support. I think you'll see a lot more of that happening, people buying it from the vendors."

It's the applications, stupid

Eazel runs on Linux, which is popular with techies for a number of reasons - two main ones being that it's open source and it's not made by Microsoft. But for most non-techies, applications are more important.

"The thing that would make them switch are most of the applications we customarily use on Windows, especially the Microsoft productivity suite (Word and Excel)," says Claybrook.

"And the two have to be compatible, not just similar. More people will be using Linux on the desktop because of stuff like StarOffice (a Linux productivity suite from Sun Microsystems). Eazel is just a small piece of the puzzle. You can get a desktop from Eazel, but a lot of things you need you get from somewhere else."

IDC's Kuznetzky is more emphatic: "Eazel is dressing up Linux to go to the party, but not the tickets to get in. And the tickets are applications. If the desktop is pretty but has no applications, people won't buy it. Eazel, GNOME, etc. are a bunch of separate building blocks on which Linux can be built, but each alone is not enough."

Kuznetzky notes that Microsoft Excel has 94 percent of the spreadsheet market, and Word has a 95 percent share of the word-processing market. "That means that all the other vendors combined are squabbling over 5 percent," he says. "And even if they could get all the others to port to Linux, it wouldn't solve the applications problem. For example, if I was a consumer and I needed Quicken (if I needed it to be compatible with what my accountant has), I couldn't get it if I wanted it."

While Eazel is not in the application development business, they know how important applications are.

"We came into this with our fingers crossed," Boich admits, but the recent goings-on in the open source world give them cause for optimism. "We looked at StarOffice (an office productivity suite from Sun Microsystems) and said, 'Gee, I wish that were open source.' Lo and behold, Sun announced at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention that they were making it open source."

As a result, Linux users now have a productivity suite (StarOffice), a Web browser (Mozilla), and a file manager (Nautilus) for free.

"We call that a catalyst, and there's a credible group of companies developing a really viable productivity platform and web browsing platform," Boich says.

Ifs and buts

Despite the pedigree of the people working at Eazel and the positive reaction to demos of Nautilus, the Greek chorus of analysts seems to think a sexy interface like Nautilus won't be enough to make legions of people switch to Linux.

In other words, the company's fate is tied to a number of factors it can't control, most notably the growth of Linux, which in turn depends on applications.

If Kuznetzky is correct in thinking Linux will grow primarily on other devices, like set-top boxes and cell phones, it won't be good news for Eazel, because Nautilus only works on desktop machines.

Boich, however, calls the recent momentum of Linux "a juggernaut," adding "we couldn't be more pleased with the progress in the last 12 months. We drunk the Kool-Aid; we do believe this is happening. And we've seen a lot of dominos falling in terms of major OEMs supporting Linux."

Even if all that comes to pass, Eazel faces another obstacle. Despite its expertise developing user interfaces, the company's success will ultimately depend on service.

"Morphing into an ASP [application service provider] offering data backups and storage means they will be competing with managed service providers," says Stacey Quandt, an associate analyst with the Giga Information Group.

"There are certainly economics to merit this choice," she says, "since network attached storage alone is estimated to be a emerging billion dollar market. And if so, the focus moves away from the interface towards server infrastructure something that Eazel, and especially its former Apple gurus, are not known for."

"The constant there is user experience, and providing a great experience between what Nautilus does now and what it will be doing in the future with services," Boich says.

Those are formidable challenges, and with any start-up, the future is highly uncertain. But if they're successful, the whole open source movement stands to benefit.

"Part of our challenge is to continue to improve the GNOME environment so that it will be more interesting and will win," Boich says. "So we're trying to strike a balance between contributing to the public good and revenue."

John Ochwat is a former editor for Upside magazine and contributes to numerous tech publications.

Discuss this article in the O'Reilly Network Linux Forum.

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