February 21, 2000
Old Apple Macintosh Team Aims to Put Linux on the Desktop
By JOHN MARKOFF
ALO ALTO, Calif. -- The Beatles never got back together, but
four members of the original Apple Macintosh team are regrouping.
And they mean to take the best of the quirky Apple computer and
move it to the world of Linux software.
Andy Hertzfeld, Mike Boich, Susan Kare and Guy Tribble are busy
trying to re-create the innovative tone originally set by Apple
Computer's founder, Steven Jobs, when he led a band of renegades to
design the Macintosh in the early 1980s.
They work in a low-slung, nondescript office building here,
filled with Silicon Valley-style cubicles and adorned with the
ubiquitous penguin mascot of the Linux free software movement. They
plan to take some of the best ideas on computer ease of use and
blend them into a new visual desktop interface for Linux. With
others in the movement, their goal is to transform the Linux
operating system, which has been designed and maintained by a
rag-tag group of computer hackers, into a direct desktop competitor
to Microsoft's Windows.
Thor Swift for The New York Times
Mike Boich, left, Andy Hertzfeld and Guy Tribble want to make the Linux
system easier for ordinary PC users.
The group founded Eazel Inc. last fall with financial backing
from the Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway and the former
Apple and Macromedia executive John Colligan. Mike Homer, a former
executive for Apple and Netscape, is also on the board. This
summer, Eazel plans to begin offering a free user interface -- an
icon-based software control system that can be downloaded from the
Internet -- that they say will give Linux an ease-of-use advantage
over Macintosh and Windows-based computers.
Eazel's biggest coup to date has been in persuading Tribble to
leave Sun Microsystems, where he had been chief technology officer
for Sun's alliance with Netscape. Known as a brilliant software
designer who made significant contributions to the original
Macintosh, introduced in 1984, Tribble followed Jobs two years
later to Next Inc. There, he led the design of the software
interface for the Next system, before joining Sun in 1993.
Eazel faces a serious challenge. Microsoft has just begun
shipping a more robust version of its Windows operating system,
Windows 2000, and Linux has only a minuscule share of the market
for desktop personal computers -- the primary market for Eazel's
Linux's strength to date has been in the market for server
computers -- network machines on which the user interface and
popular desktop applications are much less important. Currently,
Linux has a 25 percent share of the server market, compared with 38
percent for Windows. But on the desktop, only 4 percent of the 99
million operating systems sold in the United States last year were
Linux, according to International Data Corp., a market research
But for Andy Hertzfeld, a programmer whose business card reads
"software wizard," market share is not necessarily what matters.
Along with the hardware designer Burrell Smith, Hertzfeld was
the very soul of the original Macintosh development team, a group
of computer designers who professed a passionate belief that their
new computer would change the world. But after Jobs was forced out
of Apple by its former chief executive, John Sculley, in 1985,
Hertzfeld became disillusioned by the company's corporate politics.
He left Apple and began pursuing software design for non-PC
based computing devices, like intelligent stereo systems. In 1990
he helped found General Magic, a design effort underwritten by
Apple, Sony and other consumer electronics companies intent on
devising a hand-held wireless computer.
After General Magic failed, Hertzfeld turned his programming
explorations to the World Wide Web. Then, in January 1998, he
noticed Netscape's announcement that the company would freely
distribute what it called the Mozilla version of Netscape's browser
software for use by the so-called open source programming
Open source code -- free distribution of the underlying program
instructions for software, so that other programmers can pursue
further development -- is one of the basic principles behind the
open or free software movement that Mozilla and, even more
important, Linux, came to represent.
Hertzfeld had known Richard Stallman, one of the founders of the
free software movement, for more than 15 years. But Stallman had
always struck him as a "kook," he said. When Hertzfeld himself
began to rethink the idea of free software, he concluded that
Stallman was a visionary.
"It became so obvious to me," Hertzfeld said. "The shared
software infrastructure should be owned by the community. It's
beautiful and it's correct. And so I started working in the free
Completely free software, of course, will not pay the rent. So
last summer Hertzfeld began to think about the idea of turning his
passion into a business. With Mike Boich, another early Macintosh
programmer who had gone on to start several Silicon Valley computer
hardware companies, Hertzfeld searched for a way to combine the
free-software philosophy with a for-profit business.
Along with Bart Decrem, a Stanford law school graduate who had
created a nonprofit technology access center in East Palo Alto,
Calif., the two former Macintosh designers struck upon the idea of
designing a free user interface for Linux and then selling a highly
automated form of Linux service and support on a subscription
basis. The Eazel team persuaded Susan Kare, a graphic artist who
designed icons for the original Macintosh and also for Microsoft,
to join their effort.
There are now at least 140 competing distributors of the Linux
operating system, and both Microsoft and Apple are already pursuing
similar Internet-based software-support ideas. So Eazel could have
trouble distinguishing itself in an already crowded field.
But Hertzfeld contends that by automating many of the
system-configuration and management tasks that are now barriers to
ordinary computer users, the Linux community can achieve the same
kind of growth on the PC desktop that it is now seeing in the
computer and Internet server markets, creating a market big enough
for many players.
Some industry analysts say that Eazel's timing may be right, if
the Linux movement can build the kind of popular applications that
are now largely dominated by Microsoft in the PC industry --
programs like word processors, spreadsheets and databases.
"Eazel is at the right time," said Dan Kusnetsky, an operating
system analyst at International Data. "Nobody has made a major
impact on the desktop with Linux yet because the barrier has been
Eazel has formed an alliance with the group of Linux programmers
who developed the Gnome interface for the Linux operating system.
Under this pact, the Eazel team has taken responsibility for the
appearance -- the "look and feel" of the program that serves as
the control panel for the Linux operating system -- while the Gnome
group will concentrate on the internal plumbing.
The Gnome programmers are led by Miguel de Icaza, a Mexican
software programmer who is the guiding light behind one of the two
main user interfaces in the Linux world. The other main interface
is a desktop manager system known as KDE -- for K Desktop
Environment -- which is also widely used by Linux programmers. But
Hertzfeld's programmers decided that the Gnome team more closely
matched their style and perspective.
"Gnome just resonated with my spirit," Hertzfeld said, while
acknowledging differences between the older, original Macintosh
people and the younger, free-software hackers. "It was a little
bit strange meeting them," he said. "We felt like graybeards and
they seemed like teen-agers."
In fact, the year-old relationship has not been painless. The
two groups talked about, then rejected, the idea of merging, and
they have quibbled over various technical issues. In the end,
though, Hertzfeld said he believed that the two teams' ability to
reach an accommodation illustrates the strength of the Linux
De Icaza, in turn, has started his own company, aiming at the
heart of Microsoft's dominant Office suite of business-productivity
application programs. His company, Helixcode, based in Boston, is
finishing a free Linux competitor to Office that includes a word
processor, spreadsheet and mail and calendar program.
But de Icaza remains cautious about how quickly the Eazel-Gnome
alliance will be able to mount a direct challenge to the world's
largest software company in the operating system market. "I'm not
so sure how vulnerable Microsoft is," he said.
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