'Hacker' Version of Linux to Go Retail

Silicon Graphics Inc., VA Linux Systems Inc. and O'Reilly & Associates Inc. have announced they will jointly sell a packaged version of the Debian distribution of Linux.

The vendors will charge US$19.95 for the CD and accompanying book, both of which will be available free on the Web. Sunnyvale,California-based VA sells hardware that runs Linux, and Sebastopol, California-based O'Reilly publishes computing books.

The Debian distribution, which is popular among hard-core Linux enthusiasts, is principally maintained and supported by a core of about 500 volunteer developers. The distribution is distinct from others for its emphasis on online updates. Users can opt to download the latest version of any component of the code as soon as it's posted to http://www.debian.org.

Expanding the Demographic

The vendors are promoting Debian to bring it to more users than its hacker audience, according to Brian Biles, a vice president at VA, and Mark Stone, O'Reilly's Open Source editor. "We're not taking over Debian," Biles said. "We're just looking to expand the demographic."

But analyst Stacey Quandt at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Giga Information Group Inc., said VA and SGI could also be looking for a distribution of Linux that they can charge to support. The best-selling versions of Linux are supported principally by the distributors themselves, such as Red Hat Software Inc. in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Debian.org, meanwhile, doesn't provide commercial support, leaving a potential revenue stream for VA and SGI, she said.

The Debian distribution is also the core of a new Linux distribution from Corel Corp. in Ottawa. Focusing heavily on desktop ease of use, Corel has been shipping a preview version of its Linux to beta users and the press during the past few weeks.

Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Group Inc., however, threw cold water on Linux's prospects as a desktop operating system last week. In a research note, analyst Michael Gartenberg said Linux will be consigned to less than 5 percent of desktops for at least the next five years. Linux ultimately offers little unique benefit to desktop users, he wrote, and instead could baffle them with its Unix-like complexity and lack of standards. Despite the availability of several office suites, it also lacks key productivity applications, he added.

But Quandt said Debian distributions won't make major inroads in corporate information technology departments unless it has the blue-chip support that other Linuxes have: the full backing of companies such as Compaq Computer Corp., IBM, Dell Computer Corp. in Round Rock, Texas, and Hewlett-Packard Co.

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