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Lycoris: A Linux OS Good for Grandma

by Howard Wen

Would you give your grandmother a PC with Linux as its main OS? The developers of a Linux startup, Lycoris, have been trying to make the answer a more likely "yes" with their Linux package. A year ago, Joseph Cheek, the CTO and founder of Lycoris, began the work of putting together an integrated Linux desktop OS that would be easy to use for almost anyone, including his own grandmother. The result, Desktop/LX, allows users to easily check email, browse the Web, perform basic office-application tasks, and burn CDs, all under a GUI interface that functions similarly to Windows. (Incidentally, Lycoris' office is located in Redmond, Washington, home of Microsoft's headquarters. Before it was called Lycoris, the company went by the name "Redmond Linux.")

Desktop/LX isn't the only user-friendly Linux installation available, but Jason Spisak, Lycoris' marketing director, lists what his company believes many of them are lacking: "Presentation. Simplicity. Unification. An example is the choice of desktops in most distributions. What average user has a need for two entirely different desktops? It gets in the way of productivity and usability."

Many have questioned whether average PC users will ever regularly use a Linux-based OS en masse, but most of Lycoris' business plan for Desktop/LX is focused on going after the very market that Microsoft dominates. The company also hopes its take on Linux will appeal to schools and businesses that are hit with hefty licensing fees for their PCs that run Windows.

Enhancing KDE for the job

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Lycoris sells Desktop/LX, not as a Linux "distribution," per se, but as a full-fledged desktop OS. That's an important distinction for the company's marketing plan. According to Spisak, a distribution is "a loose collection of programs, many that often perform the same function." On the other hand, Desktop/LX is a complete OS with a single, unified desktop and specific applications (like KOffice and Mozilla) carefully selected and evaluated by Lycoris developers to perform specific tasks and function well. For example, instead of five text editors to choose from, there is just one.

"That's because our market, the desktop operating system market, is [accustomed] to a unified OS," explains Spisak. "In short, our market is desktop PC end users, whether they're in a corporate, educational, or home environment. Those customers need a simple, usable, and affordable operating system and supporting software."

Lycoris used KDE as the GUI interface around which to design Desktop/LX. KDE was chosen over GNOME because KDE's interface works more like Windows'. And its underlying code uses C++, which many Windows programmers use to write applications. Another argument for going with KDE is that the cross-platform nature of QT allows software developers to build applications that can be recompiled to run on Desktop/LX, Mac OS X, and Windows. For programmers who don't want to abandon the Windows platform, Lycoris felt this would make the job of developing additional applications for Desktop/LX more attractive.

Technically, there's more to Desktop/LX than just pretty icons (which have an obvious Windows XP style to them) added to the KDE interface. Lycoris created over 1,000 code patches for KDE in order to tightly integrate the GUI with the underlying Linux kernel and other operating system functions. For one, it revamped the KDE Control Center--the Desktop/LX configuration menu where software and hardware is added and removed from the system. The interface is now more visually appealing and easy to use, a clear imitation of Windows' Control Panel. Lycoris plans to further facilitate the installation of software onto Desktop/LX by adding what the company calls its "IRIS" (Internet Rapid Installer for Software) technology to future releases of the OS. IRIS will enable the user to easily install Linux software, like the open source, multi-track music-editing application "Brahms," with just a few mouse clicks.

Other touch-ups developed by Lycoris include:

  • The Network Browser, an enhanced version of Konqueror that allows Desktop/LX to seamlessly integrate into the file sharing on Windows networks.

  • "My Linux System" on the Desktop/LX desktop functions like the "My Computer" icon in Windows. A PC's storage devices (hard drives, CD-ROMs, etc.) and peripherals are automatically detected here and added to the Desktop/LX environment without the user, in most cases, needing to configure these devices to appear. Desktop/LX already has automatic recognition of various peripherals, including printers, TV tuner cards, and some digital cameras and Webcams.

Building acceptance of Linux through hardware compatibility?

While Desktop/LX's plug-and-play works well in its current incarnation, it does encounter trouble configuring and recognizing some hardware, especially legacy devices. It's probably unfair to expect Desktop/LX, or any Linux installation package (whether it is a "distribution" or a complete desktop OS), to recognize them, but it does raise the question of exactly how friendly a regular Windows PC user might perceive Desktop/LX, and Linux in general. Spisak reassures us that his company has been working to improve Desktop/LX's capabilities in this regard, and he points out, "Actually, we already have compatibility close to what [Windows] NT had for its arrival."

To expand the compatibility of Desktop/LX with peripherals and add-on cards, Lycoris' business plan also calls for selling hardware vendors on the idea of making sure their new products work under Lycoris. The company even envisions "Desktop/LX Certified" stickers on the packaging of such hardware.

Of course, the realization of this scenario depends on Desktop/LX being the Linux installation that finally grabs the attention of the average PC user. So another part of Lycoris' strategy is to have computers sold both in retail and online, pre-installed with Desktop/LX. The company has been developing partnerships with OEMs to make this a reality in the marketplace.

Says Spisak, quite confidently: "Desktop/LX will break the OEM barrier for Linux systems because it was built for end users from the start." End users like anybody's grandmother.

Howard Wen is a freelance writer who has contributed frequently to O'Reilly Network and written for,, and Wired, among others.

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