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The business of making Linux easier to use

By on January 08, 2003 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
The comparative complexity of administering Linux servers is a huge adoption barrier for small companies that can't afford to hire their own sysadmins and don't want to rely on outside consultants for all configuration changes or routine server maintenance. NetMAX is building a business by -- as they put it -- "Simplifying Linux Servers." Their "underlying technologies" are Open Source, they say, but their GUI admin tools are proprietary. Is this combination the wave of the future both for companies selling Linux, as well as for companies that want to use Linux without hiring skilled sysadmins?
Some months ago I was standing in the software section of a CompUSA store, looking at the -- literally -- hundreds of programs for sale there whose main purpose was to overcome one of Windows' many deficiencies. I remember thinking, "If Linux took over as the world's main desktop OS, an awful lot of these software companies -- especially the anti-virus crowd -- would go out of business."

Or would they? Couldn't they just start overcoming Linux's many deficiencies instead?

Linux and other Open Source and Free Software packages do not always score high on the usability front, and many volunteer developers resent being asked to make their output easier for non-geeks to use, which is certainly their right. At the same time, usability issues plague Open Source adoption. So perhaps instead of looking at this situation as a problem, we should see it through capitalist eyes as a business opportunity.

This is what NetMAX does. For example, the blurb for their Professional Suite 4.02 says:

Our Professional Suite enables you to use the power and reliability of Linux as well as popular applications such as Apache, Sendmail, and Samba which are integrated into this product. The browser-based interface helps you to quickly and easily configure and manage the required network services, freeing network administrators from routine tasks.
As a former small business owner, I can tell you that this is a powerful sales pitch. The idea of being able to handle routine server admin tasks through an easy GUI instead of relying on someone expensive is a powerful draw. Indeed, this message is at the heart of Microsoft's most successful business-directed sales pitches, and it trumps Linux's vaunted reliability, security, and other fine features often enough that Windows is still the world's most popular small business server OS.

Not free, but a lot less costly

The NetMAX Professional Suite costs $309, which is one heck of a lot more than downloading Linux, Samba, Apache, and Sendmail for free, but is also one heck of a lot less than buying Windows 2K or Windows XP Pro, IIS, and a Windows-based email package.

NetMAX product manager M.D. Squiers happily admits that his company's products, while based on Linux and Open Source, are not Open Source, and spends no time apologizing for his company's willingness to embrace a proprietary licensing scheme. But, he says, NetMax will soon be giving associated developers and VARs access to their source code.

(The formal announcement of this Shared Source-like NetMax change is scheduled for January 13, for those who follow such things.)

Squiers also talks about the company's partnership with Toshiba. "They came to us," he says, "and asked us to provide software for their Magnia SG20."

He is not sure how many units this partnership is responsible for selling. "You'd need to ask one of the marketing guys," he says. "I'm more on the tech side."

Squiers says Toshiba is not the only company with which NetMAX is cooperating. He mentions EMUmail, a Webmail package NetMAX now sells along with its own products, and notes that he and his coworkers have developed their own implementation of interchange, and are now providing commercial support for all interchange users because, he says, "Red Hat dropped [interchange support] a few months ago. It just happened that we were coming out with our own implementation, so we're now providing commercial support for it.

Part of the reason NetMAX is doing well as a product is that parent company Cybernet Systems has its fingers in a number of high-tech pies ranging from online gaming to Internet-based medical monitoring systems. The company doesn't rely on retail or business-to-business product sales for all of its income. It performs plenty of contract research for the U.S. Government, Ford Motor Company and the A.I. du Pont Institute, among others, and this keeps cash flowing in while Squiers and his coworkers work on NetMAX development, which they have been doing in one way or another -- originally starting with *BSD -- since 1995. It was originally an internal project started because, Squiers says, "We were having problems with [Windows] NT deleting files. In 1996 we started developing the GUI, so NetMAX has many years of development. It's a stable product."

What became the NetMAX value-add -- the proprietary component of the product line -- is the GUI-based configuration toolset, which is supposed to save so much admin time that no one minds paying for it.

In a practical example of how this can work, Squiers' coworker Nathan Pitts says, "For instance, if you change your IP address it can impact all kinds of things -- your Web server configuration, your ftp server configuration, your Samba configuration, your firewall, DNS (the obvious one) and your mailserver. What we've done is determine all the dependencies for those kinds of configurations. If you update one, all of them get updated that need to be."

NetMAX didn't do well through retail channels

NetMAX was originally sold through retail stores, not as one product but as seven separate ones. This was necessary, Squiers says, because "to be in the retail space, and to be in CompUSA, you have to have 40 different products [a bit of hyperbole - ED] just to be on the shelf." But, he says, "That just wasn't profitable." Not only that, reviews of shrink-wrapped NetMAX products, while generally favorable, were not always praise-to-the-skies endorsements. This Feb, 2001 LinuxWorld.com review is an example. Right under the headline, NetMAX FireWall worth the fickle installation, a subhead says, Good product, but marketing may be misdirected.

The reviewer's main complaint was that this was a good commercial-level product, but had no business being sold as a consumer, off-the-shelf item.

Now the NetMAX line has been reduced to three products, all sold to businesses either directly or through ISVs or other commercial channel partners, either software-only or preinstalled on "plug and play" server appliances, notably by Toshiba on their Magnia SG20 servers (and sold through Toshiba system resellers).

However, Squiers believes the $1300+ typical list prices for Toshiba's server software/hardware bundles may be too high for many small businesses. "I see a price point of around $500," he says, and points to NetMax's own offering of their Professional Suite and VPN products, both preinstalled on a (now obsolete, but powerful enough for this application) Magnia SG10 -- for $495. And when these units are gone -- which Squiers says "won't be long now, as rapidly as they've been selling" -- NetMAX plans to find another piece of low-cost hardware to serve as an appliance base. Squiers is confident that he will be able to find white box (or possibly brand name) low-end servers "in the $200 range, no problem."

Can this business model be duplicated by others?

We're starting to see more proprietary products "built on an Open Source base" coming to market, where the underlying software is licensed under the GPL or another OSI-approved license with some sort of proprietary GUI or configuration toolset added on top of it.

We've already written about Sourcefire and OpenMFG, which both follow this pattern. (Apple's OS X also follows it, since OS X is essentially a proprietary GUI and usability layer built on top of an Open Source BSD core.)

No doubt, there are many other companies that are also quietly following it, because this seems to be a viable business model; almost all the companies we've talked to who use it seem to be making money or at least expect to turn a profit in the near future. This pattern doesn't pass the "give the product away and make your money offering service and customization" Free Software ideological purity test, but it is easy for customers and investors to understand.

What OpenMFG, Sourcefire, and NetMax have in common (besides licensing style) is that they all make Free or Open Source software easier to use in some way, along with offering features that aren't currently available in pure Open Source or Free software form.

The danger of basing a business on the idea of overcoming Open Source deficiencies is that volunteer programmers may eventually come up with programs that are just as good as yours, possibly better, that are available for zero dollars.

But then, aren't all commercial software vendors now faced with this threat? And aren't software vendors that are locked to a proprietary operating system in an even worse position than those who use an Open Source base?

Besides the threat of free/Free software competition, vendors who deal with proprietary operating systems run the risk of having the operating system vendor suddenly decide to make their businesses obsolete by incorporate something functionally equivalent to their products into the operating system itself.

This has happened many times to applications developers who decided to make their fortunes in the Windows or Mac "worlds," and it is undoubtedly going to happen many times in the future to developers who decide to overlook the potential of Linux and *BSD development (or ports) in favor of tying themselves strictly to proprietary operating systems.

In the end, no matter what operating system or licensing style is involved, software development is a risky business, with more entrants in the field going broke than ever turn a profit. But companies that develop from an Open Source base tend to have lower initial investment requirements than those that rely on a proprietary base, and if they are producing commercial-level products that occupy an entire server they have a sales price advantage over proprietary operating system users because they don't need to buy an OS license for each unit sold.

Will the "Open Source base plus proprietary add-ons" style eventually become the standard development pattern for all server-level software?

It is entirely possible. More and more vendors, from IBM to "kitchen table" software authors, seem to be heading in this direction.

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on The business of making Linux easier to use

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there have always been GUI administration tools

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 08, 2003 10:34 PM
I have been using Webmin since about 1998. I helps administer servers and even configure them after install.

I administer my Rackspace server this way. It isn't even in the same country...

And there really isn't much to do once a server is up and running except patch it and check it is running OK. The patching is done via rpm and the Webmin interface.

Another business model is outsourcing your server. I am a mini ASP (application server providor).

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ps

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 08, 2003 10:45 PM
I checked the online demo. Webmin is well above this.

I also have Webmin installed on Mac OS X...

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Re:there have always been GUI administration tools

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 08, 2003 11:40 PM
Plus, with Webmin the GUI isn't proprietary. I made my own modules to cater to the particular environment for it and it runs on over 70 servers in locations with admins with no experience. No local staff even know the root passwords or how to get a shell. A very cool product.

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Re:there have always been GUI administration tools

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 12:42 AM
NetMAX has existed side-by-side with Webmin since
about 1998. Webmin is free, but does not provide
an integrated interface to Linux subsystems in
network appliance fashion. NetMAX does. Webmin
requires that you understand how to install your
Linux (from whomever or through download), each
subsystem, and then how to admin each subsystem
at approximately the configuration file format level.

NetMAX is like Windows wizards -- the Linux, the
configuraton, and the integration is done and fully
tested for you. This level of integration is
generally not available from open source because
it just is not interesting for programmers who
understand the basic Linux building blocks to do.

Thanks for your comments. -NetMAX

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Sounds like Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 08, 2003 10:36 PM
I once configured a linux box to be a network in a box. It used shorewall as a firewall. The box did NAT, dhcp, cyrus imap , apache and shares files via samba. I installed webmin so they could administer it. I sent this and a switch to a small satelite office overseas that had no linux or network experience whatsoever, just a couple of windows users supporting the US Air Force in Kuwait. They have been administering that network via webmin for over a year without troubles. And they still know very little about linux, other than how to login and use webmin.

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Re:Sounds like Webmin

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 12:45 AM
NetMAX has been around since 1998 side-by-side with
Webmin. NetMAX integrates Linux, subsystems, and
web GUI so that your users need not understand things
like Samba having an alternative user account list
from the normal Linux accounts. Webmin gets you
web access, but does no integration.

If you get tired of support calls from Webmin, look
at NetMAX -- there is more help, integration, and
we provide call support options. thanks -NetMAX

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Re:Sounds like Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 10, 2003 09:53 PM
I don't get any calls

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Hire Professionals

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 08, 2003 11:35 PM
In the long term, it will be better to hire a professional to manage your computers. Linux can be wonderful for many tasks, but it is not a "magic bullet". Concerns for data integrity, security are best handled by an experienced professional. If a company needs an affordable administrator, have your consultants train them as part of their job. There is nothing worse than having problems and either not knowing it or being unable to fix it. Tool kits are nice, but do not replace experience. I can buy the best set of mechanics tools money can buy, but I will not be using them to repair my car anytime soon.

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Sometimes it's not feasable

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 03:19 AM
Sometimes it's just not feasable to hire a systems admin. For example, if my company is small say 5 people, and we have a profit of about $100,000 after paying those 5 employees less than $40k each and overhead. What is my incentive to hire a sysadmin who wants over 60k? Me being the owner/ceo of said corporation I would decide very quickly that this isn't feasable and lay off everyone. Why should I the owner get paid less than the IT staff? I would then manage someone elses business with my CEO experience and the rest would now be out of work! These tools provide a solution, not "the" solution. Tools such as webmin make it easier to remotely administer systems and ease the transition from windows to linux. With webmin you can easily configure samba, sendmail apache , nfs, mysql etc. in one single interface and do it quickly. This is alot easier than using vi over ssh, even for the experienced admin!

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Re:Hire Professionals

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 12:49 AM
We agree. NetMAX just provides one way to get a
consistent interface and configuration tool on all
of your Linux servers. Because we have versions
preconfigurable to most of the server side uses
(mail, ftp, sharing, vpn/firewall, raid, etc.) this
can save you a lot of time and let your users do
simple things without you. You still retain control,
can add customizations, and can do repair back to
a know working system configuration.

Thanks. -NetMAX

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Re:Hire Professionals

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 12:52 AM
We agree. NetMAX just makes your configuration management easier. All servers will have the same look and feel. Your can repair them back to a base working state if your add-in Linux packages go south. We make the base systems work together and provide an appliance-like GUI that integrates the basics so that your users have a smooth time of simple changes.

-NetMAX

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Administering Linux servers

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 12:33 AM
Mitel SMEServer (aka E-Smith), has been round for a while, and the admin is a breeze through the web based interface. I install them for small unsophisticated businesses, and just talk them through any changes or additions on the phone.

See

http://www.abandonmicrosoft.co.uk

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Re:Administering Linux servers

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 12:54 AM
E-Smith and NetMAX are two alternative walks into the same space. NetMAX is an older more mature implementation with over 30,000 installed users -- with feedback from them. NetMAX has more features, is compatible with Red Hat if you want to add in things, but we think both products are a good idea for simplifying Linux. -NetMAX

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Another Persistent Myth that Won't Die

Posted by: Yog Soggoth on January 09, 2003 01:35 AM
Linux applications are easier to administer without graphical tools. For running simple commands in an environment without a professional administrator, you are better off running commands as cgi's on a priviliged web server than paying money for proprietary interfaces or designing a gui application to handle things.

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Re:Another Persistent Myth that Won't Die

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 02:30 AM
Easier yes, but infinitely scarier for new / MCSE admins. people associate command line with DOS and get scared by it.

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Re:Another Persistent Myth that Won't Die

Posted by: rmyers1400 on January 09, 2003 04:24 AM
Maybe they should be scared. GUI's often give people the illusion that the problem is much simpler than it is. More often than not, they just hide the pitfalls, the possible choices, and the complexity of the problem.

My biggest complaint about GUI's: they don't make it clear how the various options interact. You often find out that two options are incompatible by accident when choosing an option makes another option gray out or disappear. Sometimes, the way the information is presented, you may not find out the second option exists at all, even though you might have if you had worked your way through the GUI in a different order.

If command-line options and<nobr> <wbr></nobr>.conf files are complicated, there's a reason, and because they are presented as linear text, they can be explained as linear text in a manual page. If there are dependencies, the manual page will make them clear.

Icons *could* make dependencies clear by presenting the information in a way that makes the choice tree graphical, but they don't. Instead, they present things grouped in almost arbitrary ways so they fit on the screen.

What graphical interfaces sometimes do well is to give the user a vanilla set-up and make it clear what options *must* be specified. For people who are unwilling to use google and who don't mind having a GUI make choices for them that they don't understand, I suppose that's a plus.

RM

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Great for the DIY

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 02:20 AM
I think this product is fine for the small business who wants file sharing, internet, etc. But has almost no place in an established IT setup. At the same time, I don't think it's for the small business owner who doesn't know the difference between RAM and ROM....

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Re:Great for the DIY

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 12:58 AM
We have quite a few features in NetMAX for enterprise use. Stateful firewalls, multiple box configuration from a single console, enterprise class IPsec VPN, enforcement of password policies, etc.

With user or NetMAX customization we have also had customers that add in larger scale authentication and/or authentication to Windows domain servers.

I think your comments might reflect doubts that some enterprisers have pertaining to Linux in general. NetMAX at its core is a Red Hat compatible Linux with testing and GUI window dressing. Thanks -NetMAX

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Not flexible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 04:28 AM
I wonder if they support J2EE, qmail MTA and all the major databasen. Certainly not everyone would like to run exactly their set of tools; I had to drop sendmail in favor of qmail.

Small business companies should really spend their monies on outsourcing. Since they dont do much (some emails, a website with domains SMB etc), a Network Admin could setup everything for them and check once in a while remotely. Excluding the install time, shouldnt cost the company over $300 for this. If it does, I should start a really cheap, made-in-china outsourcing shop that doesnt do too much for a low price.

Ghazan Haider

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Re:Not flexible

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 01:02 AM
If you can get a Linux configuration done as an outsource for $300, you should do it. Our experience is that the typical server set-up takes about 2 days for an experienced person to do. We charge our Gov't customers $100/hr for this and unplanned support calls $200/hr. That would put the cost at closer to $1,600 to $3,200. Most of our customers have had similar experiences. Thanks. -NetMAX

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Re:Not flexible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 10, 2003 07:07 AM
Um. 2 days ? Can I get me some of that hourly pay ? I have automated set-up scripts that do everything in about 5 minutes. 20 for a stock RedHat install, then 5 for my stuff and you're ready to add users, printers, etc. (via Webmin). A complete office set-up takes a day or less including moving data.

Maybe that's why they are your customers, they aren't actually experienced.

And by the way, tell the marketing folks to lay-off the reply posts, it's getting a bit old.

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Paid Advertisement

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 08:46 AM
This is not news, this is a paid advertisement. This along with other proprietary software products have been on the shelves for years. In fact I almost bought the NetMAX Professional Suite some time back, but was stop by a member of the LALUG. He told me that there is a better product that is under the GPL and is free as in beer. That product is Webmin. A week later I visited the LALUG and he not only showed me how easy it was to use the Webmin, but he also had a copy of NexMAX and showed me what a mistake I almost made.

Don't you find it a little strange that Robin 'Roblimo' Miller did not mention Webmin? Yes I understand that he was talking about proprietary GUIs, but don't you think that a balanced story on a Linux site would have have at least a mention of a non proprietary product?

Hey Robin, I hope that NexMAX paid you well for the plug.

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You're preaching to the choir

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 11:50 PM
We have all known that all Robin Miller is good for is paid ad's and poor whitespace fillers. It goes without saying. I wish Linux.com would find a real writer.

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Re:Paid Advertisement

Posted by: NETMAX on January 10, 2003 01:06 AM
NetMAX did not pay for this article. See earlier comments comparing Webmin to NetMAX. NetMAX has been side to side with Webmin since 1998. NetMAX integrates a Red Hat Linux distro, network security and sharing services, and a GUI over them that is functionally partitioned, not partitioned by subsystem. This means that you do not have to understand how everything is put together. If you want to add things, NetMAX is Red Hat based so RPMs go in fine, but if your goal is to get your own configuration that allows you direct control of everything, you might be better off with Webmin.

Thanks. -NetMAX

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are you kidding ?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 11, 2003 12:51 AM
are you suggesting that NewsForge should only report about non-commercial, non-proprietary software ?

are you saying that Linux users shouldn't be aware of commercial product (and/or Linux-based business) reviews ?

what would you suggest, that they review *every* GUI tool available ? I don't think every article on Linux software has to include reviews of both proprietary and non-proprietary products to be balanced. if the reviewer likes it, then great. sometimes they don't.

who knows...maybe NetMAX has changed since you've used it, and your experience would be different.

can you consider the possibility that some businesses don't have the resources to set up Webmain ? i haven't used NetMAX, so i'm not defending it.

just because the reviewer liked a closed-source product doesn't mean that it's unbalanced.

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Re:are you kidding ?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 11, 2003 09:33 AM
You're a moron! Learn how to read.

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Re:are you kidding ?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 12, 2003 03:15 AM
blah blah blah...i can read, unlike the people who constantly have crap to say about every review on this site. if it's not one thing or another. read my questions above. it's not a paid advertisment, and the guy who posted that it was is an idiot who has some sort of chip on his shoulder.

it's a review. if you have some problem with what he's reviewing, then say so. if you have a problem with how he's reviewing it, then make yourself useful and write a better review of your own instead of badmouthing someone else's story like a monday-morning quarterback.

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Webmin

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 09, 2003 11:46 PM
I setup webmin for all of my customers that use a Linux server. Webmin allows a non-skilled person to easily do whatever a non-skilled person has to do with a server. You can now pair this with the tools in Redhat 8.0, and you have one of the easiest to administer Linux servers around. Just being practical, with webmin and the Redhat network and tools, you can easily maintain apache, mysql, firewall, email, DNS, NFS and/or samba, etc.

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You guys don't get it.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 10, 2003 07:05 AM
It takes 15 minutes to install Netmax and you have a Linux VPN Gateway.

Webmin doesn't do this.

If you just use a web based interface to edit configuration files, then you might as well be using the command line.

Netmax simplifies a lot of mundane tasks, and isn't just a web interface to the same mundane tasks (like Webmin). It also is way faster too implement as a network appliance than building and configuring a network appliance from scratch. It takes well over 15 minutes just to install Red Hat Linux.

Netmax fills a need, and it's great to argue that you don't have that need. But let's stay on the topic instead of comparing apples to oranges.

I can't wait for them to review a knife so that I can say that a spatula is better, because I need to flip pancakes, not cut bread.

Oh yeah, Netmax might even convince a windows person to try out Linux. That can't be bad.

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re: The business of making Linux easier to use

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 10, 2003 08:51 AM
Hi Robin,

You wrote: " 'If Linux took over as the world's main desktop OS, an awful lot of these software companies -- especially the anti-virus crowd -- would go out of business.' Or would they? Couldn't they just start overcoming Linux's many deficiencies instead?"

Those companies know where to make a profit. They make plenty of money writing independently for Winblows. If Linux became easy to use and became widely adopted, they would start writing for Linux. Fact is they don't think it's their job to fix Linux. That's the job of the Linux community.

Until Linux becomes as easy as Winblows AND retains its superior performance, it will continue to be ignored by all those retail software companies.

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Re: The business of making Linux easier to use

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 12, 2003 11:58 AM
"Until Linux becomes as easy as Winblows AND retains its superior performance, it will continue to be ignored by all those retail software companies."

If that's the logic your going to use, then the Mac should be sweeping the market free of MS about now.

I'll leave it as an excercise for you to figure out why that's not happening.

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