"Within 12 months for sure, computers will be free."
So says Michael Robertson, the founder of MP3.com and now chief executive of San Diego-based Lindows.
There is a twist: no Microsoft Windows. Instead, these personal computers will run on Linux, an open-source operating platform long the staple of tech geeks.
Though overturning Microsoft's dominance will be difficult, several computer-industry heavyweights are now banking on Linux making a big splash in the home-computer market.
OneStat.com's September report found that 97 percent of all PCs run on Windows. With a share of less than 1 percent, Linux is third, behind Macintosh.
Still, Mr. Robertson is unfazed: "We think Linux will get 10 to 20 percent of the market in desktops in a year. That's very aggressive, but we think we can do it."
Robertson is not giving away computers just yet. Through Walmart.com he is selling a desktop (minus a monitor) with an 800MHz processor for $199.
Scott Testa, the chief operating officer of MindBridge, one of the nation's largest Intranet providers, explains how Robertson does this: He evades "the Microsoft tax."
Hardware computer costs have bottomed out, Robertson says, pointing to the "under-50" rule that no single computer component can cost more than $50.
But there has been no commensurate push downward for software. Mr. Testa notes that desktop firms pass on to consumers the cost of a preinstalled version of Windows somewhere between $70 and $90 while Microsoft Office retails at $479. And new licensing plans by Microsoft, frustrated with unabated piracy, have raised the cost of upgrades 45 percent.
Linux, though, is nonproprietary software no one pays for it. That is what makes it an attractive platform for manufacturers of low-cost PCs.
Recently Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and even longtime Microsoft ally Dell have announced that they would sell desktops without Windows. And IBM recently allied itself with Linux distributor Red Hat.
A consumer buying a non-Windows computer could download applications off the Web. As a plus, most Linux applications are free, though some, like the popular StarOffice by Sun, retail at about $75.
Lindows is unique in that it offers, for a $99 annual subscription, a download manager for a library of thousands of applications.
"I'll make sure that the basic computer software is one click away, and I'll make sure that it works well," Robertson says.
Lindows's download manager is not necessary, but it could save PC users the hassle of downloading, Robertson says, noting that time is money.
For a long time, Linux's reputation was "for techies only." Robertson concedes that his company could not have existed just one or two years ago since Linux was "very difficult to use."
But that may have changed. Linux programmers have recently been working to make the software more user-friendly.
Avron Barr, a principal at Aldo Ventures in Palo Alto, Calif., and former co-chair of the Stanford Computer Industry Project, notes that children in developing countries are using Linux. If an 8-year-old kid in the Philippines can use a computer that runs on Linux, there's no doubt that an average computer user in the US can too, he adds.
The State University of New York at Buffalo hopes that is the case. In early September, it unveiled more than 2,000 computers running Red Hat Linux. So far, 5 percent of the school's computers use Linux.
And at this summer's US Open tennis tournament, the laptops courtside ran on Linux.
Testa's firm has switched entirely to Lindows machines no glitches so far, he reports.
But achieving widespread acceptance of Linux will not be easy. Consumers who own lots of programs already up and running in Windows will face high switching costs.
For its part, Dell computer has yet to see much increased demand for Linux from people whose computers operate with Microsoft software.
"In our eyes, it's not Microsoft vs. Linux," says Wendy Giever, a spokeswoman for Dell in Austin, Texas. Instead, she says, "we are seeing demand coming from businesses who run their big computers on a Unix server and are moving it onto Linux."
"The mind-set currently belongs to Microsoft, and it will take a large chunk of effort to change that, especially in the very short time-frame." says Tony Lock, a senior IT analyst at Bloor Research in London.
Indeed, a recent Business Week survey put Microsoft as the world's No. 2 brand, behind Coca-Cola. Supplementing its name-recognition: a trove of gifted programmers, over 25 years of industry experience, and billions of dollars to invest.
Peter Kastner, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group, thinks that Robertson's and Sun CEO Scott McNealy's hopes of 10 to 20 percent of the market for Linux are inflated: "I have been out on a limb saying 5 percent of the market could be on Linux a year from now." Though, he says, "5 percent of a 100 million PC market is huge."
Robertson wants to prove even the optimists wrong. "We are still in development right now," but he is confident that Linux machines will eventually overtake the market.
"Cellphones cost about 200 bucks to manufacture, and they are given away for free," he says, alluding to the price of a Lindows machine.
He even thinks it likely that soon "each person [will have] their own computer." For free. And running on Linux, he might add.