Mandrake’s Down, Who’s Next?

Mandrake is belov'ed by Linux fans. Mandrake is a favorite of the Linux desktop crew. And Mandrake is on its way out the door.

Mandrake is belov’ed by Linux fans. Mandrake is a favorite of the Linux desktop crew. And Mandrake is on its way out the door.

On January 13, 2003, Mandrake filed a declaration de cessation des paiements, French for “Chapter 11.” Even begging for money from its loyal users couldn’t reverse Mandrake’s fate. Now the question is: What other Linux companies will follow in its wake?

Mandrake’s fall spells out — for anyone who hasn’t put it together yet — that since Linux is open source and is essentially free, the basic business plan of packing a product (Linux) for resale just doesn’t work. When the basic material of your distribution is free for the taking, not enough people will pay for it to make it worthwhile.

So what’s a Linux businessman to do? Clearly, you can give up on the idea of vanilla Linux distributions. Mandrake was both popular and critically received, but it didn’t matter. If Mandrake can’t do it, no one can.

So what are the Linux vendors doing that might be successful? I see three different approaches being used that might work: lock-in software distribution, ala Lindows; emphasize proprietary add-ons and focus on service, ala SCO; and continue to embrace open source, but make service your real “value add,” ala Red Hat.

Lindows started out as the Linux that would also let you run Windows applications. That got them lots of attention and a lawsuit from Microsoft. With lawsuits like that who needs advertising? Now, Lindows’ claims for Windows application compatibility are almost completely gone. In its place, Lindows is emphasizing its price in low-end bundled systems and its “it’s easy to install software” Click’N'Run interface. Lindows’ price is a winner for people who can afford a $200 computer, but not a $500 one. While $500 may not sound like a lot, with an economy that’s still sinking downward, I suspect more and more people to buy the low-end but low-cost Wal-Mart specials.

Even if LindowsOS-based machines sell in blockbuster numbers, that probably won’t be enough to keep Lindows in business. The real revenue stream comes from Lindows’ software subscription model. Of course, Lindows doesn’t offer anything you can’t get for free elsewhere — if you know what you’re doing. What Lindows needs is a ongoing, healthy influx of new Linux users who are willing to pay a subscription fee for dead simple software updates.

That’ll work in the short term, but Lindows won’t ever become a major company. Its business plans rely too much on the bottom-end and it will only attract customers so long as no one else duplicates the Lindows easy-to-install software system. It’s only a matter of time before someone else duplicates Click’N'Run’s functionality in open source, and on that day, Lindows will become just another consumer Linux distribution, facing the same fate as Mandrake.

SCO, on the other hand, now that its visionary leader Ransom Love has left, is focusing more and more on its proprietary offerings like OpenServer, UnixWare, and its intellectual property in System V Unix. Its share of the Linux market has declined and it’s turned all of its Linux development crew over to SuSE and UnitedLinux.

While SCO certainly hopes to make money from UnitedLinux, I get the feeling that SCO’s new management wants to make a profit — as well they should! — but that they don’t see Linux as the way to do that. Instead, I see SCO putting more proprietary parts of their Unix offerings — especially the never-say-die OpenServer — into Linux. SCO doesn’t see Linux as an independent product line, but as a way of keeping OpenServer customers and ISVs while simultaneously encouraging those same ISVs to take their battle-tested Unix applications to the far more popular Linux.

Red Hat still believes in the open source dream — to a point. For example, the Linux community can get the source code to Red Hat Advanced Server (RHAS), but they can’t get the binaries and they certainly can’t get the RHAS service. Thus, Red Hat continues to keep the open source faith, but to continue in the black, they’re looking to sell more binaries and provide more services.

SCO (along with the other UnitedLinux companies) and Red Hat also have something else in common: they believe that the Linux server market is where you can find dollars and cents. Oh, they’ll make some token efforts on behalf of desktop and laptop users, but they don’t really see those systems as a viable market. Except for high-end technical workstations and Lindow’s bottom-end systems, nor should they.

The middle-range Linux desktop is a non-starter. People who want it already have it. And, there have never been enough of them in the first place to make a viable market. Don’t believe me? Talk to Mandrake’s founders.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a long-time Unix guru and technology writer. He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

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