Eazel Inc., one of the shining hopes for establishing Linux on corporate desktops, will show off the latest version of its Nautilus graphical/network environment this week, along with announcing a partnership with Dell Computer Corp., through which the Austin, Texas-based PC maker is claiming a stake in the company.
Under the partnership agreement, Dell will ship Nautilus as well as Eazel Services on all of its Linux-based lines of desktop and laptop systems, a move most observers believe will give the open-source operating system greater credibility on the desktop.
Dell will put its money where its mouth is through its investment arm, Dell Ventures, which will take a "substantial stake" in the start-up, according to a company spokesman who declined to disclose the financial specifics of the deal.
"We see this as an important deal for both us and the Linux community, because it puts the products into the hands of a lot more people. It also sends a signal to the Linux community that we can put forces together to create a more compelling user experience," said Brian Croll, vice president of Eazel, in Mountain View, Calif.
Dell will be shipping Preview Release 2 (PR2) of the Eazel environment with its Linux systems shortly, but it will not be shipping the finished product until next spring when Eazel is expected to add its finishing touches.
Perhaps the most compelling parts of Preview Release 2 are the two services woven into the graphical shell that link to back-end services.
The first of these tools, Software Catalog, allows desktop users to install software over the Web from a Linux library with a click of their mouses. The second, Eazel Online Storage, makes it easy for desktop users to store files on the Web and share them remotely using just a browser.
"Over time what we can do with these services is to intelligently look at what is on your desktop and decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for you to load a piece of software from the Web," Croll said. "If you are missing something you need to run that software, the system can go out and find it so you can load it."
Company officials believe that Linux users cannot live on snappy graphical interfaces alone, stressing that the coupling of the interface with smooth access to back-end services will prove to be its major contribution to establishing Linux on the desktop.
"What is happening now is people are going to a whole other level of user experience we call the 'network user experience.' We think right now we have a big opportunity to redefine the Internet experience for desktop users," Croll said.
But some observers believe that, despite Eazel's best efforts, crafting a user-friendly interface will be constrained by the two problems that have continually plagued the desktop use of an open-source operating system: the lack of native versions of popular applications and the lack of development tools to create those applications.
"I applaud their efforts to deliver something that looks very much like Windows, with a browser and an exciting series of tools. But a pretty interface with no software and missing components is an environment all dressed up with nothing to run," said Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass.