Novell Inc. on Monday said the latest version of its distribution of the Linux operating system is available for free download or in a retail version.

Novell's vice-president of product management for open platforms, Carlos Montero-Luque, said in a statement that the company's OpenSUSE 10.2 "is the world's most usable Linux distribution."

Linux is a free operating system developed by volunteer programmers around the world.

Novell and Microsoft Corp. on Nov. 2 announced they were partnering to improve inter-operability of their software in a co-operation agreement with a net value of $308 million US.

Novell's new software, which the company said is aimed at non-technical people and is not intended for business use, employs a graphic interface that features menus, program panels and icons similar to those found in Microsoft's rival Windows software.

The OpenSUSE release offers more than 1,500 applications, including the OpenOffice productivity suite, Firefox web browser and GAIM instant messaging tool. The operating system allows users the choice of working in either Linux or Windows.

OpenSUSE 10.2 was created by the Novell-sponsored OpenSUSE project, a community initiative that promotes the use of Linux, especially among traditionally non-technical audiences.

The free version is available immediately at the OpenSUSE project website, and the $85 retail version will be available through Novell's online store later this week. The retail version includes the software on DVD and CDs, a user manual and 90 days of installation support.