Desktop Linux Eazel Inc. Could Change the World Or Go Broke Trying
Desktop Linux Eazel Inc. Could Change the World Or Go Broke Trying
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, April 19, 2001
Those wondering when the technology sector will get off its knees should pay close attention to what happens to tiny startup Eazel Inc. over the next few weeks.
The company is on the ropes, running out of cash, and could go out of business within a month. But if Mountain View-based Eazel manages to regain its footing and find the new investors it’s seeking, the little-known firm could play an enormous role in restoring growth to core technology markets, not just for a year or two, but for decades.
If the company fails, however, it will be another ominous sign for tech firms, and for Silicon Valley in particular. The company’s fate serves as a key marker of whether the tech community will return to the long-range strategic thinking that was responsible for its creation, or whether it will continue to fall prey to the delusions that have been its undoing in recent years.
Eazel is the brainchild of legendary Apple Macintosh software programmer Andy Hertzfeld. Although he left Apple more than a decade ago, Hertzfeld’s contributions remain a vital reason there are still so many avid Mac fans.
The low key, affable programmer has been called the greatest hacker ever. It’s a designation he won after designing and implementing many of the principal features behind the look and feel of the original Mac, including its intuitive User Interface Toolbox, which was a revolutionary advance back in the early 1980s.
Hertzfeld is at it again, this time designing and releasing a new graphical user interface called Nautilus for the free Linux open-source operating system. The goal is to bring Linux to the masses by making it easier to use and more versatile than competing Windows and Mac operating systems.
If Linux takes hold on the desktop, as it already has in server markets, it will change computing forever. It will also permanently open up the new markets that are needed to revive long-term growth in the tech sector.
There are several other firms working to bring Linux to the desktop through the use of a more advanced user interface. But none of them have technical leaders with Hertzfeld’s record of delivering what consumers want. Most experts agree that Hertzfeld has it what it takes to bring Linux to the next level.
To his credit, the soft-spoken Hertzfeld has never pitched Eazel as a get-rich-quick scheme. That, coupled with the recent economic downturn and doubts about whether open-source software companies can make money, has made it difficult for Eazel to find the additional money the company needs to stay afloat.
Eazel needs backers with patience and vision to succeed.
Like Intel and Cisco before it, Eazel must create an entirely new market before it can reach full maturity as a business. If it does, however, Eazel will also create an avalanche of related new business opportunities that cut across the entire tech industry.
Last month, Eazel released Nautilus 1.0, its groundbreaking new graphic user interface for Linux, which competes with the Windows, MacIntosh and Palm operating systems, among others.
The big difference with Linux, of course, is that it is free and open-source, which means that programmers everywhere can modify and improve the software without needing the permission of the original manufacturer.
Linux’s famous reliability and low costs have helped it outpace competing products in the server market. One reason for that is most of the necessary Internet-based server applications, such as the software Internet service providers use to send and deliver e-mail, already run on Linux.
Unlike server applications, however, the most commonly used desktop software applications don’t run on Linux, which effectively locks consumers in to Microsoft’s platform. Linux currently commands 27 percent of the market for server operating systems, but less than 2 percent of the desktop market.
The result is a now-stagnant PC industry where hardware lifecycles are dictated by the capacities of just one software company rather than the combined creativity of the much larger global community of programmers.
That’s exactly the situation Hertzfeld and his colleagues at Eazel aim to rectify.
“I was trained at Apple to always think about the user experience,” Hertzfeld told me last week. “The concept is to serve the user’s needs rather than putting them on a constant, costly upgrade cycle.”
That training, he says, also led to several of Nautilus’ most notable innovations, all of which bear Hertzfeld’s signature trademark. The icons Nautilus uses to identify files, for example, allow the content of those files to show through. Icons representing .jpg image files contain a representation of the image. Icons representing text files contain the beginning of the document; if you want to look at the whole file you merely expand the desktop icon.
Hertzfeld says it’s all about making computer use more intuitive.
Files that represent songs, for example, identify themselves as “songs” rather than relying on more conventional and confusing tech lingua franca, such as .WAV. Similarly, the length of each song file is identified by the time it takes to play the song, not by the number of bytes in the file. Linger over a song icon for a second or two and the song starts playing. Simple stuff. But exactly the type of features that make computers less intimidating.
Eazel’s embryonic business plan envisions eventually charging users a low monthly fee, about $4, in exchange for a series of Web-based services, which can include automatic file backups and assistance in resolving conflicts between software applications.
Eazel hasn’t solved the biggest problem holding Linux back on the desktop, however, which is that the most popular desktop software applications, such as Word, are optimized to run under either Windows or MacIntosh. But competing vendors, including Sun Microsystems, have recently introduced several open-source office suites that serve as a substitute for Word, and which also support file conversions from Windows.
“There’s lots of work going on in that area now,” says Hertzfeld.
Eazel contributes to solving the problem by making it easier for users, particularly unsophisticated users, to begin migrating to the Linux platform. Throw in continued progress with file conversion utilities and you begin the see the contours of a slowly evolving but seemingly inevitable shift to greater use of free software programs.
It’s all about eliminating what Hertzfeld and others call the “operating system tax” now stifling the computer industry.
If operating systems are eventually free, the billions of dollars currently consumed each year paying for operating systems would be eliminated. Companies will use at least some of that money, and the technical freedom that comes with it, to develop the next generation of software applications that are needed to drive economic growth.
Think of it as a physical market. Once you make it free to walk along a Promenade, more people will walk on that promenade, and that in turn will create more shops, more cafes and more products for more people.
In software terms, an open-source operating system environment invites creativity, collaboration and astonishingly fast-paced new product development efforts. If proof of concept is required, just look at the rapid growth of the Internet.
As Hertzfeld likes to note, the benefits of the open source approach are even more compelling in developing economies.
Making it possible for people to run computers without paying for an operating system certainly won’t bring a computer within reach of every child in the poverty-stricken Third World. But software prices that can more than double the cost of a computer do nothing to help sales in emerging cash-poor markets such as Asia and Africa, places that will be decisive in determining Silicon Valley’s long-term future.
Put simply, the proliferation of free software will lead to increased global sales of computer hardware and related services, including more advanced software application development.
That’s one reason Dell Computer put $2 million into Eazel’s $13 million first round of venture capital financing, with most of the rest of the money coming from the well-regarded Accel Partners venture capital firm.
The question now, however, is whether Eazel can find additional financial backers who remember how the venture capital business operated before it became an IPO mill.
I talked to renowned venture capitalist Don Valentine back when Cisco was in something close to Eazel’s current predicament. Valentine had just put his first few million into the firm despite the fact that Cisco was serving a mostly untested market.
What Valentine did then is just what the high-tech community needs now, the creation of a new technology platform suited to the times that can underpin sustained growth in Silicon Valley’s key interrelated markets. Dramatically lower the costs involved with owning and operating computers, and the world will once again beat a path to the doors of firms selling and producing those products.
Eazel’s hopes rest on finding financial leaders still capable of such long-range thinking. If it can, then there is at least some reason to hope that future generations will look back at this difficult time as the period when Silicon Valley gave birth to a new technical infrastructure that led to even more widespread growth and innovation.