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    A Fight to the Finnish                                             
    the pulpit Why Linux Quite Appropriately Scares the Bejesus        
    Out of Microsoft                                                   
    By Robert X. Cringely                                              
    I spent an afternoon last week with Linus Torvalds, creator        
    of the Linux operating system. Fortunately for me, I didn't        
    have to visit Helsinki, Finland, where both Linus and Linux        
    were born. For the last year and a half, Linus has been            
    living in Santa Clara, California.                                 
    The whole phenomenon of Linux is a story too amazing to be         
    true. A 21 year-old college student in Finland decided to          
    create and give away his own clone of the Unix operating           
    system to run on PCs. Seven years later, Linux has between         
    seven and eight million users, runs on every major and minor       
    microprocessor family, has thousands of programmers devoted        
    to improving and extending it, is giving Microsoft major           
    fits, and still costs nothing.                                     
    Luck of course plays a large role in this story, but not as        
    large a role as I had originally assumed. Linus turns out to       
    be a remarkable fellow with exactly the right character to         
    make something like this work. He may be only 28, but Linus        
    is a very solid guy. He's totally devoted to both the concept      
    of creating solid, powerful software and to giving it              
    away. He exudes an integrity that goes far beyond the smug         
    cleverness one feels at Microsoft. Maybe that's why he's so        
    misunderstood in Redmond.                                          
    The key to the success of Linux goes far beyond the                
    price. Free is good, of course, but the true strength of           
    Linux is the international movement to improve and extend          
    it. Linus estimates that there are only a dozen or so people       
    like him who devote most of their time to Linux. Nearly all        
    the other Linux programmers are doing it a few hours here and      
    there. Yet, here's this world class operating system,              
    continually appearing in new versions and with new                 
    features. How can that be?                                         
    Linus attributes the high quality of Linux (its very stable        
    compared to many other operating systems including Microsoft       
    Windows) to the grass roots development effort. This would         
    seem to contradict the idea many people have that it takes a       
    high buck development operation to create great                    
    software. Just the opposite, says Linus, who claims that free      
    software is nearly always better.                                  
    "It's very simple," said Linus. "Because the software is           
    free, there is no pressure to release it before it is really       
    ready just to achieve some sales target. Every version of          
    Linux is declared to be finished only when it is actually          
    finished, which explains why it is so solid. The other reason      
    why free software is better is because the personal                
    reputation of the developer is attached to every release. If       
    you are making something to give away to the world, something      
    that represents to millions of users your philosophy of            
    computing, you will always make it the very best product you       
    can make. That's the reason why Linux is a success."               
    How can Microsoft compete with that argument? It's hard, and       
    the internal struggle to come up with a good response is           
    evident. In the same week that Microsoft president Steve           
    Ballmer told the Seybold audience in San Francisco that            
    Microsoft is targeting Linux and Apache (the free Web server       
    that is the most popular in the world) the company couldn't        
    tell me HOW they are going to respond to Linux. They               
    certainly won't respond on price, since there is no way to         
    undercut free. We're much more likely to see a campaign of         
    fear, uncertainty and doubt.                                       
    Microsoft used to dismiss Linux as 1980s technology, which         
    pretty much describes both Linux and Windows it seems to           
    me. Now they'll start talking about "total cost of ownership"      
    and find some way to make it look like using free software is      
    more expensive in the long run than using software from            
    Microsoft. Linux is certainly not free, but if you saw the         
    story that flew around the 'Net recently comparing Microsoft       
    tech support with the Psychic Friends Network, you'll realize      
    that just because Microsoft has a big support operation            
    doesn't mean you'll actually get a solution to your problem.       
    Linux scares Microsoft on several levels. There's this             
    business of giving the software away for free, which is            
    totally confusing to Bill Gates -- confusing and scary, since      
    it undermines the entire basis of his fortune. But it's the        
    breadth of Linux and its potential on other platforms that         
    also scares Microsoft. At a time when Microsoft is trying to       
    be sure its software runs on all the network computers,            
    set-top boxes, and other new machine types that just might         
    replace in our hearts the PC, the Linux Router Project offers      
    the guts of just such an operating system for free on a            
    single 1.44 meg floppy disk. But what scares Microsoft most        
    of all about Linux is the defection of developers, which are       
    beginning to make Linux a very popular platform for server         
    Take Sergey Brin and Larry Page, for example. They are a           
    couple of doctoral students in computer science at Stanford        
    University who are building their Internet startup company         
    around Linux. Brin and Page are throwing themselves into what      
    would appear to be the already overcrowded market for              
    Internet search engines. Their engine and their company are        
    both called Google and quite purposefully sit atop Linux           
    rather than some other variant of Unix or atop Microsoft's         
    Windows NT.                                                        
    Google has more going for it than just a great name. It also       
    has some great technology to help searchers actually find          
    what they are looking for. To do this, Google tries to take        
    into account in each search the underlying wisdom of the           
    Internet, itself. This is based on the idea that the market        
    has intelligence, though in this case the market is one for        
    information, not stocks and bonds. So Google looks not just        
    at the Web pages that contain the keywords used in your            
    query, but it also looks at how many other pages are linked        
    to the pages it finds.                                             
    The idea here is that your query about Studebaker automobiles      
    may return a thousand or more pages, but among those pages,        
    some have been linked to by other pages. Creating a link from      
    one page to another says that the page being linked to has         
    real value to the linker and might have real value to the          
    rest of us. So Google presents first the sites that have the       
    most links and are therefore the most popular. This presumes,      
    of course, that popularity is for a reason, which it didn't        
    seem to be at my high school. How about at yours?                  
    So Google is hot. These fresh-faced kids from Stanford have a      
    good idea that's implemented well. And it is implemented on        
    Linux, not NT, which worries the heck out of                       
    Microsoft. Ironically, Google is based in Stanford's William       
    Gates building.                                                    
    "The only time I saw Bill Gates was at the building                
    dedication," said Google founder Sergey Brin. "Gates was           
    coming down the hall with the department chairman and he           
    asked 'What operating system do you have running on all these      
    PCs?' Well of course they were all running Linux, but the          
    chairman kind of coughed and said the department used many         
    different operating systems."                                      
    Linus Torvalds has never met Bill Gates, but I have, and both      
    men are to be reckoned with. It's easy to dismiss Linus'           
    tract house with the Pontiac Grand Am parked in the driveway,      
    but don't do it. Look for the considerable substance inside        
    that has made Linux the success it is. Linus is an ethnic          
    Swede born in Finland. He's part of the five percent of the        
    Finnish population that speaks Swedish, so he is used to           
    being part of a minority and maintaining his culture in an         
    environment that is overwhelmingly dominated by others. Next       
    to this, Microsoft is not such a big deal. And don't discount      
    Mrs. Torvalds, either. This mother of two is the six-time          
    Finnish national karate champion. Melinda Gates wouldn't have      
    a hope.                                                            

Best Regards,

      Adobe Systems                 Tel: 1 408 536 3945   (W14-128)
      Advanced Technology Group     Fax: 1 408 537 4042 
      W14-128 345 Park Avenue     Email: raman@adobe.com 
      San Jose , CA 95110 -2704     Email:  raman@cs.cornell.edu
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      http://cs.cornell.edu/home/raman/raman.html    (Cornell)
    Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are my own and in no way should be taken
as representative of my employer, Adobe Systems Inc.

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