I have seen the future of free software, and it looks pretty darn cool. Last week, I met with Mike Boich, CEO of Eazel, who gave me a look at Nautilus, Eazel's souped-up file manager for Linux-based systems. And unlike most software product demos, which usually consist of equal parts stupefaction and irrelevance, the Nautilus run-through actually delivered. Nautilus looks like a lot of fun. More to the point, it looks like it will work.
Eazel has received much attention from the free-software, open-source community, mostly because of the rich lineage of its core employees, nearly all of whom boast illustrious Apple Macintosh backgrounds. When you have Andy Hertzfeld, one of the chief designers of the original Macintosh software setup, on your team, you have instant credibility (even if his last hugely hyped start-up, General Magic, was a failure).
Eazel's ultimate goal is to make Linux safe for the desktop, to bridge the not inconsiderable gap between the arcane power of Unix-like operating systems and the ease of use of the Mac or Windows interface. The goal has long been a Holy Grail for Unix/Linux advocates, but despite years of clamor, it has always remained just out of reach. Sure, Linux-based systems have made lots of market noise in the "server" space, but skeptics are easy to find when Linux's prospects for making a dent in the consumer desktop world are considered.
Nautilus, which runs on top of the GNOME GUI and eventually will be part of the default Red Hat Linux distribution, is the first piece of software I've seen that has a credible chance of luring in the masses of computer users who might be interested in Linux but don't have the time to hack text files from a command line any time they want to get some serious work done. As I watched Boich point and click his way around, listening to MP3 files, clicking on images, associating programs with particular file types, I saw a tool that would make my life with Linux much easier -- a tool that seemed to add several orders of magnitude of usability to the current state-of-the-art Linux GUI interfaces, GNOME and KDE.
I also saw something that made me itch with the desire to get it up and running on my own machine, not to mention something that would be downloadable in mid-August and included with distributions of GNOME in September, according to Boich.
And that was even before Boich demonstrated the software maintenance features. Eazel plans to scour the Net for updates of open-source software programs. When you log onto the Net through your Web-enabled Nautilus -- the browser capability is built around Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine -- Eazel will notify you of which software programs you have installed can be updated. Installation of those updates is basically just a couple of clicks away. With Nautilus, one can imagine easily keeping abreast of the constant flurries of changes that course through the open-source ecology -- no small task.
As befits the legacy of the Macintosh, everything about Nautilus looks good -- pleasing colors, pleasing design, pleasing integration of features. But that did raise one obvious question. If the Macintosh, with all its ease-of-use pioneering, lost out to Windows for control of the PC marketplace, what made Boich, Hertzfeld et al. think that Linux plus GNOME plus Nautilus could threaten Bill Gates' stranglehold over the desktop? That's where Boich made the most interesting comment of the demo: Linux is doing to Windows what Microsoft did to Apple.
Apple screwed up, said Boich, by keeping proprietary control of both the hardware and the software. When Windows turned hardware into a commodity, Apple couldn't compete.
Linux, says Boich, is going one step further. By making the operating system a commodity, and forcing software developers to compete on the basis of what kind of services they can provide to computer users, Linux/GNOME/Nautilus is threatening, in essence, to prevent Microsoft from using its control of the software infrastructure to wipe out competition.
That's a tall order, requiring not just the creation of killer software that everybody absolutely, positively must have on their computers but also the creation of a revenue stream that can continue to subsidize the kind of high-level and speedy software development that Eazel is already demonstrating. And that's still the weak point of Eazel. The plan is to make money by getting Nautilus users to subscribe to add-on Eazel services -- things like software update notifications and Web-based data backups and storage.
Will enough people pay for update notifications to keep Eazel afloat? It's likely that Eazel will have to think of other, more gripping "value adds" to go where no Linux-related company has gone before, into the realm of profit. But it has made a good start. Nautilus is no longer vaporware -- it's real, and the gut feeling here is that a great many Linux users are going to want to take it for a spin as soon as they can get their hot little hands on it.