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A conversation with GaŽl Duval, founder of Mandrake Linux
Rick Lehrbaum (Feb. 12, 2002) founder and executive editor Rick Lehrbaum speaks with GaŽl Duval, Founder of Mandrake Linux. Duval relates the history of Mandrake, explains what makes Mandrake unique, discusses the company's market focus, describes Mandrake's philosophy with respect to open source, and offers his vision of the future of the Desktop Linux Market and what will help its success. Briefly, what is the story behind Mandrake? That is, the history of Mandrake as a distribution and as a company.

Duval: The Mandrake distribution was begun in 1998. After completing my University computer-science courses, I began to work (as a hobby) on making Linux easier to use. My main goal was to integrate the very new KDE graphical environment into an existing Linux distro, then add several features to make it more desktop-oriented. Part of what I did was to make access to the CD-ROM and Floppy drives transparent (e.g. no need to mount disks by typing "mount /dev/..."). The initial tests on the new distro were performed by one of my brothers who was then a student in literature (now a teacher), with absolutely no knowledge of Unix systems.

On July 23rd 1998 I released the first Mandrake distribution by uploading it to two FTP servers. I sent a few announcements and two days later, Mandrake Linux was mentioned on Slashdot. That same day I left home for a two week vacation in the south of France. When I returned, there were more than two hundred messages waiting for me in my mailbox, including new ideas, one patch, and two companies (located in the US and Australia) announced that they had already started selling Mandrake on CDs!

Frankly I was surprised by the response, but it was clear that there was a real need for an easy-to-use Linux system, as well as a need for a practical alternative to Microsoft Windows.
I continued working on Mandrake, and after issuing a new version I was contacted by people who suggested to found a company to support the development of Mandrake Linux. At the time, I didn't believe a business could survive on this one project, but for a long time I had wanted to start a company, and since I was searching for my first job after graduating from school, I agreed. So, MandrakeSoft was created in November of 1998. The 1998 Christmas season was an incredibly busy period for me because we had to improve Mandrake, design the first boxes, and write the first manuals -- but we were only three guys in the entire company! In comparison to the other leading Linux commercial distro's (RH, SuSE, Debian, ...), in what ways do you feel Mandrake is unique?

Duval: Mandrake was the first Linux distribution to be graphically-oriented, and we were also the first to offer features such as Pentium optimization and security levels. So technologically speaking, it's clear that we are a leader. Today, we have become more and more embraced by business & enterprise users because we provide much-requested features, such as security levels or the CUPS printing system. Also, companies tend to prefer a solid Linux system that is fundamentally easy to use and administer, rather than just some other "UNIX-like" OS which has the capability to put a graphical interface on top.

I think Mandrake offers the best of both Red Hat and Debian, but with ease of use as an added plus! Let me explain myself... the way our distribution is developed shares similar aspects with Debian: we have a permanent version of the distribution -- called "Cooker" -- that is constantly being developed and updated. Everyone can see the changes that are made every day, and anyone can contribute and get involved. Furthermore, we release everything that we develop in-house under the GPL license, which is our way of giving back to the community (in addition to releasing the entire Mandrake Linux product). At the same time, MandrakeSoft is a commercial company that sells products (boxed versions of Mandrake) and services (consulting, support, etc.) which provides much needed credibility for corporate users because they know they can trust MandrakeSoft, which further contributes to the success of the distribution. So far, Linux has seen its greatest successes in the Server market and, in the past year, it has begun to see a lot of action in the Embedded (devices) market; but to date it has been least successful in the Desktop market where it is thought to have only around 3 percent share of desktops. What market, and what sorts of users, represent Mandrake's market focus?

Duval: It's true that Linux currently will not replace Windows 98/Me/XP for all users for several reasons, including a lack of commercial end-user applications; but, Linux on the Corporate Desktop is making dramatic gains. Everywhere we look, we see large companies who are extremely interested in migrating their internal desktop OS to Linux, and Mandrake in particular. A much lower cost is one reason they are looking seriously at Linux, but also stability and scalability are important issues with these customers as well. MandrakeSoft is extremely well positioned because we provide two distinct advantages: a very competitive and solid server solution combined with a distribution that sets the standard in easy-to-use Linux desktop workstations. Currently, Mandrake is often said to provide the best option for using Linux as a desktop OS among newbies and those migrating from Windows ('s online polls certainly indicate this). However, there seems to be a "market disruption" occurring right now in the Desktop Linux Market, as evidenced by the activities of several startups which are targeting Linux at newbies and Windows-to-Linux migration. Specifically, I'm referring to new distro's like Lycoris Desktop/LX (formerly Redmond Linux), ELX, Xandros Desktop, and LindowsOS -- products which are based on the idea of keeping things very simple, preconfiguring desktops, enhancing WINE functionality, providing easy-to-use upgrade mechanisms, etc. Now for my question: Assuming Mandrake intends to remain a leader (the leader?) in the Desktop Linux Market, how do you plan to respond to this new challenge?

Duval: Diversity is always good. It allows new experimentations and eventually fits new needs. If a new Linux distribution brings nice innovations and respects the open source spirit, then Mandrake-Linux will include them. Also one of the advantage of Linux, is that you have a Desktop and a Server in the same product. This leads to a new and different usage of computers.

By the way, you should have a look at the Mandrake Gaming Edition that was released a few months ago. It uses a technology called "WineX" which lets people play The Sims and other Windows games in Linux just like under Windows. Some Linux companies have adopted a hybrid product model, in order to generate revenue from the sale of their software, whereby they include proprietary programs within their distributions which allows them to require users to pay per-copy royalties and prevent people from freely (legally) reproducing their distributions. Other Linux companies take the approach of having a "free" product, and charging for services, support, and the convenience of "boxed products" which include packaging and reference manuals. What is Mandrake's strategy/philosophy regarding open source vs. bundling commercial apps and charging/licensing your distro? Will Mandrake's Linux distro remain available for free download and reproduction?

Duval: I certainly hope that Mandrake will always remain available as a free download that can be freely reproduced and distributed, as well as for our documentation. But, like any other commercial enterprise, MandrakeSoft needs to make money to cover the costs. Recently we introduced a new feature called "MandrakeClub" that we are asking our many users to join as a way to help support and fund our many free services such as online forums, web-based support sites, and many other useful community resources. Currently, MandrakeSoft's revenues are produced 80% from package sales and 20% from services. That 20% figure for services is small, but considering that we began offering services just two years ago, it's understandable. As more and more people are downloading the product free via the Internet, we know that we can't continue to sell ever-increasing numbers of boxes in the future. But as Mandrake continues to gain many new users each and every month (both individual and corporate users), it's clear that we will continue to increase the business around Mandrake Linux. Currently, Red Hat makes 80% of its revenues with services, which says a lot about our growth potential. Some companies in the Desktop Linux Market are beginning to place a high priority on WINE as a means to allow programs written for Windows to also run on Linux, thereby filling in the gaps in what is available today on Linux. How important do you feel WINE is? Might WINE be something Mandrake could support more aggressively in the future? (e.g. creation of an easy-to-use installation/configuration utility, helping to optimize its emulation of Windows APIs, etc.)

Duval: Mandrake Linux has provided Wine in the distribution since 1998, and we currently provide a Wine package that is pre-configured and ready for instant-use. I'm very happy that some other companies are now discovering Wine :-) But if you're asking me whether or not Mandrake will become "Wine-centric", a kind of Windows OS running on the top of a Linux kernel, my answer is no; people requiring that much Windows compatibility should probably stick to Windows instead ;-) A distribution as comprehensive and complete as Mandrake naturally comes with many of the inherent complexities of Linux, including numerous choices for various types of applications (mail, editors, browsers, etc.), alternative desktop environments (KDE, GNOME, etc.), and so on. As the number of software packages grows and the programs themselves evolve, keeping up with new versions and new programs is increasingly challenging for Linux users, making package management a real issue. Sometimes, for example, a simple attempt at installing an RPM results in a lengthy and frustrating process of locating and installing the required libraries. What is Mandrake doing to improve the ease and reliability of package management and new software installation?

Duval: About the "inherent complexities of Linux, including numerous choices for various types of applications"... Each day, I receive dozens of Mandrake screenshots in my mailbox. They are incredible: all different! all unique! To me, it seems that offering a uniform desktop and a uniform set of tools would remove the important aspect of user individuality -- not you? But we ARE in fact shielding newbies from much of the complexity and multitude of programs by offering only a "select few" programs during a basic install.

Your question leads to another interesting issue about the standardization of the Linux graphical environment from a programmer's point of view. Today, if you are a programmer who wants to write a Linux application that runs under X, you can use many different toolkits (Xlib, Gtk+, Gnome-libs, KDE-libs, Qt, Tcl/tk...) but you can't ensure that the app will be able to run in any Linux distribution (unless you are using Xlib, which is very low-level) because some Linux distros provide GNOME as default, some other use KDE, or, in the case of Mandrake, both. One or two years ago, I proposed to the Linux Standard Base that KDE-libs and GNOME-libs should both be Linux standards for programming, but I was answered that it wasn't a priority. Nonetheless, I keep thinking that there would be many more end-user applications running on Linux today if this was standardized.

About RPM management, our standard "apt-like" management tool is called "urpmi". Whenever you want to install a new package, urpmi informs you of any dependencies, and asks for permission to install the extra packages needed to satisfy those dependencies. It's a wonderful program that we're very proud to have developed. How is MandrakeSoft doing financially? You had a rather large layoff last year -- what areas were affected, what projects or initiatives were curtailed or delayed? How close is the company to profitability? What is the financial outlook?

Duval: The layoffs mainly affected the people who were developing our "e-learning" activities. Now that we've refocused our efforts specifically to Linux, e-learning is a secondary concern. We also have cut all the big salaries in the company. We've preserved our development and services staff, which are the essential parts of the company. Our recent IPO was quite small, yet nicely accepted, and it permitted us the luxury of cutting costs in many areas instead of just laying off people! Financially speaking, we're doing better and better with each passing month: MandrakeStore is very successful as well as the Mandrake Club, and we plan on reaching "break-even" by September 2002 and on being a profitable company in 2003. By the way, MandrakeSoft stock can now be easily purchased in the USA on the OTC Market (Symbol: MDKFF). What is your vision/expectation for the opportunity of Linux on the desktop? In your opinion, what are the main barriers to the success of Linux on the desktop, and what are the key things that can be done to maximize the success of Linux in the Desktop Market?

Duval: Currently, we see rapid movement to Linux Desktops inside of companies and governments. Educational and home desktop use will quickly follow as soon as there are enough end-user apps -- hopefully apps that work better and faster than their Windows counterparts :-)

I would like for all the major Linux participants to agree on standards, which would then free the programmers to focus on designing great graphical apps for Linux! Thank you very much for taking time to share some of your thoughts with the Desktop Linux community, and best wishes for the success of MandrakeSoft!

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