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Re: PBS: Dont discount Linux:
- To: "T. V. Raman" <raman@Adobe.COM>
- Subject: Re: PBS: Dont discount Linux:
- From: Janina Sajka <email@example.com>
- Date: Thu, 1 Oct 1998 14:38:42 -0400 (EDT)
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Apropos Raman's post, thought list readers might enjoy the following
article from the front page of the business section of the New York Times,
Monday, September 28
September 28, 1998
For Sale: Free Operating System
By AMY HARMON
D URHAM, N.C. -- In an experiment that is half business model and
half populist movement, a small company called Red Hat Software
is charging $50 for an operating system called Linux that anyone
can get free on the Internet, and it is paying programmers decent
wages to write code that it will give away.
M.J. Sharp for The New York Times
Red Hat's chief executive, Robert Young, says free software can be
While that might seem the most contrarian of business plans, Red
Hat is attracting blue-chip investors to the notion that free can
The movement, known alternately as free software and open source,
is built around freely distributing source code, the basic commands
that programmers write. Publishing these instructions before they
are compiled into the binary language of computers offers other
programmers the chance to examine the code and suggest or actually
At its best, the movement's proponents say, open source could
harness the collective wisdom of the world's best software
designers for social good, undermine Microsoft Corp.'s Windows
monopoly and propagate an operating system that does not crash.
A great deal of their passion is inspired by Linux, a version of
the Unix operating system developed by Linus Torvalds of Finland
and numerous collaborators worldwide. Linux (rhymes with "cynics")
has attracted a cult-like following among programmers and systems
developers who say it is a more secure, flexible and economic
alternative to Microsoft's industrial-strength operating system,
Despite that kind of following, the business-model half of the Red
Hat experiment strikes many people as counterintuitive.
Robert Young, the chief executive of the three-year-old company in
Durham's Research Triangle Park, insists that open-source products
can make money. And although he has nothing against contributing to
a utopian vision of software development in the process, his
pragmatic focus has lately attracted interest from venture
capitalists and corporate backers.
"The software industry is built on intellectual property," said
Young, a 44-year-old Canadian who used to run a computer-leasing
business. "You own your technology, and if you get it widely
disseminated you can coerce your user base into buying new
releases. We give up that control -- and those profits -- but that
is exactly what is going to drive our success, because that is
what's best for the user."
Among Red Hat's potential corporate backers are Intel Corp. and
Netscape Communications Corp. An announcement is expected as early
as Tuesday, when Young is scheduled to appear with executives from
both companies in San Jose, Calif.
Such support, particularly from Intel, whose close ties to
Microsoft have recently shown signs of fraying, would lend
considerable credibility both to Linux and to Red Hat's plans to
build a business by providing customer service and technical
support for the free operating system.
Recent support for Linux and other open-source projects seems to
suggest a growing acceptance in the software industry of an
alternative to the tradition of proprietary code.
IBM, for example, recently licensed Apache, a popular program
for serving up World Wide Web sites. Like Linux, Apache is a free,
And Netscape last February published the source code to its
Navigator browser for navigating the World Wide Web. Forced to stop
charging for Navigator by Microsoft's free distribution of its
competing browser software, Explorer, Netscape gambled that going
one step further and releasing its code would give Navigator a
competitive advantage over Explorer in the long run by spurring
"Open source has already radically changed the computer industry,"
said Tim O'Reilly, whose publishing company, O'Reilly &
Associates, makes money producing user manuals for free software.
"In the first round, open-source software will not beat Microsoft
at its own game. What it is doing is changing the nature of the
Windows NT, Microsofts operating system for powerful work stations and
for the server computers that link them, has overtaken the Unix
operating system. But a new version of Unix, called Linux, is gaining
ground and could pose a threat to Microsoft.
The New York Times
Torvalds, who wrote Linux in 1991 when he was a student at the
University of Helsinki, licensed it in a way that allows anyone to
submit improved code and redistribute it at will. Since then,
thousands of programmers have volunteered elaborate improvements of
their own design for no more reward than the respect of the geek
Submissions to Linux's core code, or kernel, are subjected to
instantaneous electronic peer review, a technological meritocracy
that has so far insulated Linux from the kind of fragmentation that
has befallen other operating systems built around the international
Despite the operating system's reputation for power and
reliability, corporations have been reluctant to use Linux because
nobody owns it. That is why the emergence of companies like Red Hat
and Caldera Systems Inc. -- a Linux distributor with a business
plan based on corporate training, services and support -- is
considered crucial to the success of the free operating system.
Now, bolstered by commitments from companies like Oracle, Netscape,
Intel, Informix and Corel, all of which have announced plans to
support Linux in recent months, Red Hat and Caldera are getting
But their business plans are fragile. For instance, since Red Hat
wants whatever code it writes to become part of the Linux kernel,
it must be published under open-source rules. That means that
www.cheapbytes.com can, and does, sell Red Hat's entire Linux
package for $1.99 -- $48.01 less than Red Hat's customers pay.
Red Hat's Young estimates that as few as 1 in 10 of the people who
use Red Hat have paid him for it. But that is one of the
paradoxical pillars of charging only for support and services, not
for intellectual property.
"My job is not to compete with Microsoft," Young stresses. "It's to
lower the value of the operating system market. Microsoft makes $5
billion in operating system sales. If I get that market, I
automatically make it a $500 million market."
Skeptics are quick to note that the technology companies lining up
behind Linux, with its estimated 7 million users, have their own
competitive reasons to oppose Microsoft, which has 300 million
users for its Windows operating systems.
What is more, the skeptics point out, no one knows how long Linux's
labor-of-love development by programmers will last.
"An operating system is a living thing," said Carl Shapiro, an
economist at the University of California at Berkeley and a
co-author of "Information Rules," a book to be published this week
by the Harvard Business School Press. "Ongoing investment and
upgrades are essential to attract customers. Nice cooperative
thoughts are not enough."
Still, use of Linux is growing by more than 40 percent a year,
according to IDC, a research firm. And a 1997 survey by another
research firm, Datapro, found that Linux scored higher with users
than any other operating system. Dell Computer, which last year
began offering Linux to customers who ordered at least 50 computers
a quarter, said that more interest had been expressed in Linux in
James Love, director of Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on
Technology, which has encouraged the Justice Department to
investigate Microsoft's Windows licensing deals with computer
manufacturers, said his office had found it impossible to buy Linux
already installed on a PC from a major commercial vendor. But he
managed to install it on his own computer, and he was impressed.
M.J. Sharp for The New York Times
Red Hat's Gnome project aims to make Linux easier to use by creating a
graphical interface. Its members include, from left, Owen Taylor,
Michael Fulbright, Jonathan Blandford, Federico Mena and Carsten
"This is the first time we've seen an industrial-strength product
developed without a corporation behind it, and we think it's
amazing" Love said. "If the operating system is in fact a natural
monopoly, then what could be better than having an operating system
that nobody owns?"
No one argues that Linux poses a threat to Microsoft right now. But
at a time when the next version of Windows NT appears indefinitely
delayed by a complexity that has grown unmanageable, Linux
enthusiasts are beginning to find back-door ways to introduce the
operating system into their corporations.
For example, when Randy Kessel, a manager for technical analysis at
Southwestern Bell, part of SBC Communications, installed Red Hat's
Linux on the 36 desktop personal computers that monitor network
operations in Kansas and Missouri, it was done on something of a
After poor results testing a memory-intensive application with
Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT, a colleague had asked Kessel
why, if he thought Linux was so great, he did not try it.
"So we took a mission-critical operation and we deployed a free
operating system there," Kessel said. "And now we spend a tenth of
the administration cost for those desktops that we do for the rest
of the 315 we use."
Even so, he met resistance.
"The legal department says, 'When it fails, who do we sue?' " he
said. "The IT department says, 'It's not a proved product.'
Corporate security says, 'It's hackerware.' But it's the only thing
Other recent Linux converts include the movie director James
Cameron's special-effects company, Digital Domain, which used the
operating system to help create the illusions in "Titanic."
And when the city of Medina, Wash., was overwhelmed by documents --
including the four file cabinets filled with paperwork on the
mansion built by Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates -- it installed
an electronic document retrieval system that runs on Linux.
Ray Jones, president of Archive Retrieval, which installed the
system for Medina, said he was aware of an irony in his choice of
an operating system. But he recalled feeling vindicated when a bug
arose in the scanning process.
"We asked a question on the Internet, and within a couple of hours
we had an answer," Jones said. "I fixed it myself with three lines
of code. With a commercial product I'd have had to wait for
Microsoft to fix it -- if it ever did. This way, the whole Linux
Marc Ewing, 29, who started Red Hat in 1995 because he found
downloading the various pieces of Linux a major headache, said
developing software in isolation -- without public contributions --
"would be like typing with one arm."
And yet for Linux to ever compete with Windows, it must be easier
to use. Now users must control Linux with a complicated syntax of
arcane commands. So Ewing oversees six programmers working on a
project called Gnome, an effort to hide the nuts and bolts of the
operating system behind the kind of graphical interface familiar to
users of Macintosh or Windows machines.
While they sleep, other groups elsewhere in the world are getting
up to work on Gnome. Often by the next morning, someone will have
translated the code into Portuguese.
But Torvalds, who now works for a chip design company in Silicon
Valley, insists that the true strength of an operating system is
"You use a Windows machine and the golden rule is: Save, and save
often," Torvalds said. "It's scary how people have grown used to
the idea that computers are unreliable when it is not the computer
at all -- it's the operating system that just doesn't cut it."
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this
article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web,
and The Times has no control over their content or availability.
When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be
able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's
"Back" button or icon until this page reappears.
* Red Hat Software
* O'Reilly & Associates
* Caldera Systems Inc.
* Linux Online
* Linux Myth Dispeller
* Linux Center, a web directory
Amy Harmon at firstname.lastname@example.org welcomes your comments and
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Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
Janina Sajka, Director
Information Systems Department
American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)
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