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Catch a falling star

Mandrake quickly became the most successful desktop Linux of its day, the Linux distribution that offered the most for the home user, the hobbyist or adventurer looking for a friendly and practical alternative to Windows, easy to install, easy to configure, and easy to use. The first release was numbered 5.1, after the Red Hat release it was based on.

By the end of 1998 Duval had founded MandrakeSoft with Frederic Bastok and Jacques Le Marois, with the objective of developing the commercial potential of Mandrake through the provision of packaged versions of GNU/Linux and related support services. In May 1999 Mandraksoft signed an agreement with MacMillan Software, now the Pearson Technology Group, which proceeded to base a widely available Linux product range on Linux Mandrake, giving Mandrakesoft access to a vast distribution network in the US.

Mandrake, which had apparently risen from nowhere in a few short months, quickly became the most popular Linux distribution for home users, not least because it consistently presented a friendly and helpful face to the world, and had angled its content towards the desktop user, whereas others had looked towards the more obvious rewards of the server market.

The upsurge in interest in Linux during the late 1990s brought a new emphasis on usability and accessibility, and much of the impetus for the simplified installation and control of Linux systems had come from Mandrakesoft - who maintained an ethical relationship with the developer communities, releasing the tools it developed for installation, updates, configuration and hardware identification under the GPL.

The added value of Mandrake came from the wealth of point and click configuration tools that came with the distribution. Mandrake tackled the problems that were familiar to home users - dynamic partitioning, printer and terminal configuration - and came up with solutions that Windows users could understand, at a time when installing Linux was still intimidating for less experienced users.

Besides the standard desktop, MandrakeSoft expanded its services to include gaming, firewall and server editions of Mandrake, and a full range of consultation, support and training services for business. The distribution won numerous awards, and in November 1999 was nominated an "Innovative Company" by the prestigious French National Association for the Development of Research (ANVAR).

Tell me where all past years are

Mandrake was the Ubuntu of its day, and it seemed its run of good decisions and good fortune could never end. Mandrake was aimed at the home desktop users market. Linux was on the rise, and Mandrake was gaining users by the day.

As early as August 1999, MacMillan was claiming that its sales of Linux, based on Mandrake, accounted for 52% of Linux retail sales in the United States, and despite being based in Paris, more than 70% of Mandrakesoft's own sales were in the United States.

But the rise of Mandrake coincided with the dotcom boom, and it could be argued that its rapid growth was also the cause of its relative downfall during later years. Mandrake continued to top the distrowatch charts every year until 2004, the year Ubuntu came on the scene and times were changing.

Mandrake faced the problem that other makers of desktop versions of Linux have faced - selling an operating system in a box is not a sufficient business model unless you can sustain it with support agreements. Broadband was becoming ubiquitous in the markets where Mandrake was strong, and those users who once bought Linux in a box could now download an ISO or get it free with a magazine. Mandrakesoft's costs were rising as it expanded to fulfil the demand, opening an office in Los Angeles, and recruiting programmers to sustain the pace of change, but revenues didn't grow to match.

In July 2001, MandrakeSoft entered the Paris Euronext free market (Marche Libre), the French equivalent of an IPO, with an initial offering of 688,480 shares representing 20.28% of the company's capital, in a bid to raise funds, but by the end of 2002 was admitting that it faced serious cash problems, and began looking for new sources of income.

Such was the depth of Mandrakesoft's problems that the company posted a call to action from its users. "If you are concerned about MandrakeSoft's future, this is the time to mobilise," it said, and asked users to pay a subscription to Mandrakeclub, by which they could gain access to more software, quicker downloads and special promotions.

In January 2003, Mandrakesoft had to file for "declaration de cessation des paiements", the French equivalent of Bankruptcy Protection, but had recovered sufficiently by March 2004 to reach an agreement with the courts whereby liabilities of 4.1 million euros (roughly equivalent to 5 million US dollars) would be repaid to creditors over a nine-year period.

Mandrakesoft's profits for the fourth quarter of 2003 were 270,000 euros on revenue of 1.42 million euros for that quarter, which was a remarkable turn around for a company that had failed to post a profit since 1999.

Next: Get with child a Mandrake root

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