When a group of Apple veterans formed Eazel last year, the company was seen as a guiding force in taking the Linux operating system mainstream. And that belief wasn't limited just to outsiders.
Eazel CEO Michael Boich told reporters that the company's efforts to build a friendlier interface for the grassroots, Unix-like OS would take ease of use to a new level, ultimately surpassing Windows and the Mac OS in simplicity.
That ambitious goal took a hit last week as Eazel closed its doors. And with the company's demise, it doesn't appear that a Linux GUI will live up to Boich's predictions -- at least, not anytime soon.
"Our most diligent efforts were not sufficient to secure additional funding," read a notice posted on the company's Web site. "We're disappointed that we can't continue developing software and services for users of open-source software."
Proponents of Linux herald the OS for its speed and broad support among programmers. But Linux's command-line interface is off-putting for many users, preventing the operating system from gaining wider acceptance.
Enter Eazel with its plans to develop a graphical user interface named Nautilus for Gnome 2.0, a popular Linux desktop environment. The company's cofounders included Apple vets Boich, Andy Hertzfeld, Bud Tribble, and Susan Kare.
Industry watchers see Eazel's demise as more than just the end of one company -- it also illustrates the challenges facing Linux developers. On LinuxPlanet.com, editor Kevin Reichard cited Eazel's woes and Corel's "inability to practically give away the desktop-oriented Corel Linux" as "two strong indications that there isn't an acceptable rate of return on Linux desktop development."
Eazel faced an uphill battle, says usability engineer Mike Kuniavsky, the one-time head of Wired' s interface research group and now an independent consultant. "Making it easier to do common desktop-management tasks, which is what Eazel was trying to do, is important, but it's not the whole thing," Kuniavsky says. "To use a toolbox analogy: Eazel makes it really easy to find your hammer, but it's a crappy hammer. Most people are much more likely to want a good hammer than a well-organized toolbox."
The problem confronting the Linux interface is tied to the very nature of open-source software, says Brian Proffitt, a contributing editor for Linux Today/LinuxPlanet and a coauthor of The Joy of Linux.
"While it creates a wonderful environment for developers to work within, open-source development can get a bit fractious without strong leadership at the top of a given project," Proffitt says. "But Linux is modular. Many of the parts can work quite independently of the others, so there's no centralized control over the different projects. This lack of centralized control . . . is simultaneously a strength for Linux and a weakness, particularly compared to centralized organizations like Microsoft and Apple. If a project can get organized to outdo Mac or Windows, then it will. But I think it would take a very organized effort to do so."
That's not to say there isn't plenty of hope for Linux on the desktop. "Boich was correct in making his prediction, if somewhat grandiose," Proffitt says. "I can see where Linux could surpass Windows and Mac in the interface arena."
Linux's interface lags behind those of other operating systems because it was never a huge priority for Linux developers, Proffitt contends. "Only now, as the various distributions try to wrap Linux up in neat packages, both physical and virtual, to send to the average end user, is the interface a priority," he adds.
In the meantime, don't look for Linux's interface shortcomings to drive users to Mac OS X -- the new Mac operating system with a Unix-based core called Darwin. Apple, in fact, touts its new OS as packaging the power of Unix with the Mac's ease of use.
But Proffitt doesn't think OS X will have any impact on Linux's popularity. "Most end users are simply not aware of the kernel structure of Mac OS X and how it's similar to Linux," he says.
"Besides, the people who work with each OS really want different things out of their machines, so it really is comparing apples to oranges," Proffitt adds.
Eazel released Nautilus 1.0 as a free download in March. The company had hoped to charge users for certain services, such as a storage system that let people keep "filing cabinets" on the Internet and a program that automatically configured a personal computer whenever new software was installed.
Still, the end of Eazel certainly does not mean an end to the development of a Linux GUI.
"Nautilus is licensed under the [GNU General Public License], so the software will live on and, we hope, continue to improve," Eazel cofounder Bart Decrem wrote in an e-mail to Gnome developers. "Andy Hertzfeld will host what will remain of the Eazel Web site, and all the Nautilus resources will continue to be available. The source code, CVS repository, and binaries have always been hosted on gnome.org, and this will continue."
Hertzfeld, who designed and implemented much of the original Mac system software, plans to remain active in developing Nautilus. "I'm still optimistic that our work can make a big difference to millions of users," he wrote in a separate e-mail.