A Move to Build PCs without Windows ; Promising Cheap or Free Computers, Challengers Hope to Lure Users to Abandon Microsoft Software for Lesser-Known Linux

Article excerpt

Within 12 months for sure, computers will be free."

So says Michael Robertson, the founder of MP3.com and now chief executive of San Diego-based Lindows.

There is a twist: no Microsoft Windows. Instead, these personal computers will run on Linux, an open-source operating platform long the staple of tech geeks.

Though overturning Microsoft's dominance will be difficult, several computer-industry heavyweights are now banking on Linux making a big splash in the home-computer market.

OneStat.com's September report found that 97 percent of all PCs run on Windows. With a share of less than 1 percent, Linux is third, behind Macintosh.

Still, Mr. Robertson is unfazed: "We think Linux will get 10 to 20 percent of the market in desktops in a year. That's very aggressive, but we think we can do it."

The basic idea

Robertson is not giving away computers just yet. Through Walmart.com he is selling a desktop (minus a monitor) with an 800MHz processor for $199.

Scott Testa, the chief operating officer of MindBridge, one of the nation's largest Intranet providers, explains how Robertson does this: He evades "the Microsoft tax."

Hardware computer costs have bottomed out, Robertson says, pointing to the "under-50" rule that no single computer component can cost more than $50.

But there has been no commensurate push downward for software. Mr. Testa notes that desktop firms pass on to consumers the cost of a preinstalled version of Windows - somewhere between $70 and $90 - while Microsoft Office retails at $479. And new licensing plans by Microsoft, frustrated with unabated piracy, have raised the cost of upgrades 45 percent.

Linux, though, is nonproprietary software - no one pays for it. That is what makes it an attractive platform for manufacturers of low-cost PCs.

Recently Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and even longtime Microsoft ally Dell have announced that they would sell desktops without Windows. And IBM recently allied itself with Linux distributor Red Hat.

A consumer buying a non-Windows computer could download applications off the Web. As a plus, most Linux applications are free, though some, like the popular StarOffice by Sun, retail at about $75.

Lindows is unique in that it offers, for a $99 annual subscription, a download manager for a library of thousands of applications.

"I'll make sure that the basic computer software is one click away, and I'll make sure that it works well," Robertson says.

Lindows's download manager is not necessary, but it could save PC users the hassle of downloading, Robertson says, noting that time is money.

For a long time, Linux's reputation was "for techies only." Robertson concedes that his company could not have existed just one or two years ago since Linux was "very difficult to use. …