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