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Michael Robertson and the future of the 'Net

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 26, 2002
(Issue 2017, Fantastic Fiction)

Michael Robertson hasn't given up on his business plan – he's just expanded it to include software.

See, Robertson figured out early on that the Internet offers a unique distribution channel, one that bypasses the traditional chokepoints of the retail world. In the online world, you don't have to go through distributors to reach customers – not if you have an effective marketing campaign. (After all, people do still have to know you exist.)

By building an online music portal at, Robertson (a former columnist for ComputorEdge) proved that bands could reach new audiences without going through the record companies.

Now, he aims to do the same for software.

A New Venture

After selling to international entertainment conglomerate Vivendi for buckets of money, Robertson started While Microsoft and its supporters dismiss LindowsOS as just another Linux clone, Robertson sees things differently.

"We're going after the desktop market," Robertson said in a recent interview at's UTC offices. "Our competition is not the other Linux companies, it's Microsoft."

He has a point. The tremendous growth of Linux the past few years has come in the server market – Linux is doing very well against Unix, Solaris and Windows 2000, but not so well against Windows 98, Me or XP. And so while there's a good chance your favorite Web pages are residing on a Linux box, the odds that you have Linux running in your cubicle or den aren't much better than the odds you're running an Amiga or Atari. And as Robertson further pointed out, the major Linux players have not even tried to position Linux as a general computing solution for the office or home.

Interestingly, the one company that did try to push Linux for the desktop market – Corel, publisher of WordPerfect and CorelDraw – is now out of the Linux operating system business (although they're still supporting their Linux applications). They've sold their version of Linux – which was by far the easiest to use of all Linux variants – to Xandros (, which is the kernel Lindows is using for its OS.

That's good news for consumers, because Corel Linux (now XandrOS) was incredibly simple to install – easier even than any flavor of Windows. The drawback? Installing software under Linux, even Corel Linux, remains difficult and confusing – far worse than installing software on a Mac or Windows PC.

The Lindows Plan

Not to worry – Robertson is way ahead of us on this one with an innovation he calls "Click-N-Run." Just as the Mac and Windows both handle a lot of the behind-the-scenes mess of installing software for you (automatically installing the correct printer drivers for your word processor, for instance), so will "Click-N-Run" – with the added benefit that it will run online from the web site.

And that just may be Robertson's secret weapon – he's willing to give up the retail channel to Microsoft and use to distribute Linux applications, just as distributed music.

"It can't be just an OS we have to offer," Robertson said. "It has to be an OS and an entire world of software. Our goal is to be a middleman, a distributor of software."

The business plan calls for Lindows to share its "Click-N-Run" standards with Linux applications publishers, so that they can make their programs as easy to install under LindowsOS as a Windows or Mac version would be. (You can see a preview of this by going to and clicking on "Warehouse.")

So if you wanted a new word processor, you'd simply go online to Lindows' web site, choose the one you wanted (StarOffice, WordPerfect), and click. Your credit card would be billed and the software would download and install immediately.

Now, this is only a workable solution if you have DSL or a cable modem – Robertson said he's only concentrating on the broadband market.

Can It Work?

So, the question becomes can Lindows' business plan possibly work?

Perhaps. Certainly, the market's disgust with Microsoft has never been higher than it is now. Microsoft's attempts to use the latest version of Windows to control access to the Internet have angered many consumers, as have its overly strict licensing agreements for Windows and Office XP.

The fact remains, though, that Office is the industry standard. A cornerstone of Lindows' game plan is to get Office for Windows running from the Lindows desktop – without the need for Windows. Prototypes we saw running in the Lindows offices were impressive; anyone who's upgraded to Mac OSX while keeping OS9 also on the machine will be familiar with LindowsOS' ability to share a hard drive with Windows – and to still access all the Windows applications and data files (just as OSX can still see the OS9 data files, and run OS9 applications).

A version of Lindows that's easy to use (the KDE desktop looks and behaves much like the Mac or Windows desktops) and runs Microsoft Office? If folks can save $200 or more on the purchase of their $600 PC by opting for LindowsOS instead of Windows, Michael Robertson may be on to something very special.