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Get With the Programmers

Can Linux really take on Microsoft's Windows? Our man in the Valley risked possible sunburn and certain embarrassment to find out.
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Letter From Silicon Valley

In the year 2001, Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of the New Jersey Turnpike, the 233rd anniversary of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the 40th anniversary of Barbie's boyfriend, Ken. There are so many significant events that I confess to a certain level of birthday burnout. Still, there was no way I was going to miss the Linux 10th Anniversary Picnic and BBQ.

Linux, of course, is the '90s upstart operating system that is beloved by legions for both its functionality and its price. (Linux is open-source software, which means its source code is free and available to everyone.) I'd been curious for some time about what Linux -- and the open-source movement in general -- might mean for business. I first seriously confronted the issue back in 1999, when I was CEO of Gazooba Corp. (now called Qbiquity Corp.), an online- marketing company. One day my chief technology officer, Zen Ohashi, asked me to make a decision about the computers that would host our Web pages. We could buy Sun machines, he said, which cost several thousand dollars each and came loaded with Solaris (Sun's version of the operating system Unix). Or we could get regular old PCs, which cost around $1,000 each and ran a free version of Unix, such as Linux. (Zen had already ruled out Windows NT. He said the cool programmers didn't like it.)

Mark Yatabe, a member of our advisory board, suggested we go with the Suns to make our investors happy. Mark said recently, "I'm telling you, Andy, your VCs were soothed more by Zen saying, 'We're running Oracle over Solaris,' than they were hearing about your Wharton M.B.A."

Today, with the support of companies like IBM, Oracle, and Sun, Linux has become an acceptable back-end pedigree, running on close to a third of corporate servers. But the story of Linux's success is as much about love as it is about money. "Some of the Linux guys are really fanatical about it," explained Mark.

Sometimes to truly understand something, you have to make yourself vulnerable to it. I may yet start another company someday. In the interest of gaining valuable entrepreneurial insight, I decided to risk catching Linux fever. On a fog-free Saturday morning I drove to Sunnyvale Baylands Park to celebrate among the faithful.

I arrived around noon and was greeted at the park's entrance by a middle-aged man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word Microscared in the style of the Microsoft logo. I handed him my $15 donation to help cover the cost of the event and inquired about the shirt. "I got it at the first LinuxWorld conference," he said with pride. "It's a collector's item."

In the park I found a throng of several hundred Linux zealots, the kind of pale-complexioned folks I imagine you'd meet at a Dungeons & Dragons tournament. Connie Conover, a volunteer at the first-aid station who was set up to treat sunburns, confirmed my suspicions that these people didn't spend a lot of time outdoors. But her characterization of them was tempered with respect. "You'll hear a lot of interesting things from these nerds," Connie said. She pointed in the direction of her husband, John. "I call him a 'dren,' which is nerd backwards, so he doesn't get mad. He doesn't like that I use Windows."

I had hoped to pass as a member of the Linux cognoscenti, but my cover was blown the minute I struck up a conversation with the real McCoy. Eugene "Pixo" Clement is a Swiss programmer working for a company called MandrakeSoft, which helps its customers transition from Windows to Linux. "We also distribute a version of Linux that includes a choice of graphical user interfaces -- kind of like KDE," Eugene was explaining to me when he noticed my eyes begin to glaze over. "Wait," he said, lowering his sunglasses. "You are not a geek."

With a wave of the hand that said "Not that there's anything wrong with that," Eugene explained that KDE was a program that made Linux look more like a Windows desktop. Because it was open source, programmers from all over the world contributed to it, and every once in a while the community released a new version. Eugene claimed that MandrakeSoft's Linux package included the first such Linux desktop that appealed to regular computer users and not just techies.

MandrakeSoft is a French company, and Eugene had helped launch its U.S. operation, in Pasadena, making him very much an entrepreneur. "Almost every person here is an entrepreneur," said Eugene. "Everyone who is developing software and sharing it in the hopes that their code will become well-known is putting their assets -- programming time and skills -- at risk. It's still an unproven business model." The rewards in this open-source economy, Eugene explained, can be counted in consulting engagements to make custom alterations to popular code -- and in what Mark Yatabe calls "the pride of being geekier-than-thou."

Excusing myself to mingle, I wandered over to where John Conover, Connie's husband, was surrounded by a bunch of what passes in this milieu for groupies -- kids who knew his E-mail address and admired his code. These days John is happy to take love where he finds it. The 57-year-old CTO of POMALS Inc., a security-service provider that uses wireless technology to enable its customers to track their loved ones' movements, told me that venture capitalists courted Linux gurus after the initial public offerings of Red Hat and VA Linux went through the roof. "They would call me saying, 'We've got $10 million. Wanna start a company?" John said. "It's not like that anymore."

Sitting next to John was Mike Chrabaszcz, a 40-year-old software engineer who said he was an "economic refugee from the socialist regime that is Canada." Mike educated me on the philosophical change that Linux represents. "My stuff is on SourceForge," he said, referring to a popular site for sharing open-source software. "That means anybody can use it and contribute to it. There's no pretense that software is a thing that a company can control and own. This is a boon to the advancement of technology." John cracked a joke about registering "ctrl-alt-delete.com" and redirecting it to Microsoft's Web site, and I used the belly laughs that followed as cover to excuse myself and grab a hamburger.

At a table near the grill, I ran into Hristo Doichev, a programmer for Celerity Systems, a maker of test equipment for wireless applications based in Cupertino, Calif. Hristo explained why he was trying to get his company to switch to Linux and StarOffice, a free, open-source bundle of word-processing and other office software. "We pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on Microsoft software licenses, and that's just for internal applications like Exchange Server and Office," said Hristo. "For Office alone we pay $200 a seat, and we have to buy 200 seats so we have some room to grow and they won't sue us. We could replace all of that with free copies of Linux and StarOffice." According to Hristo, the only thing stopping companies from switching to Linux was the fear of trying something new. Innocently, I raised the possibility that corporate employees might need professional software support.

All around me conversations abruptly ceased. A man with a long gray beard turned to stare at me. "Do you really think people get support from Microsoft?" he demanded incredulously. Unwilling to argue the point -- and vaguely concerned for my personal safety -- I beat a hasty retreat and joined a pickup game of pÉtanque.

As I prepared to take my leave, I thought back on the conversations I had had that day and on what I had now come to view as an epic struggle. On one side are techies such as John, Mike, and Hristo, true believers toiling alone but also part of a loyal and idealistic band who rely on one another for innovation, support, and quality control. On the other side is Microsoft, with its army of M.B.A.-wielding marketers. Would the vigilantes one day knock the M.B.A.'s out of the ring? Fresh from my encounters with the faithful, I would have bet money on a total victory for Linux. Then I bumped into Connie Conover again. "You know, I learned a lot today," Connie said. "OS means operating system. Right?"

It may be a while before Linux pushes Windows off the hard drives at the Conover household. No matter what a dren like John Conover has to say about it.

Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba Corp. (now Qbiquity Corp.) and a contributing writer at Inc. He can write a Java servlet but has never played Dungeons & Dragons.


Copyright © 2001 Andrew Raskin.


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Last updated: Dec 1, 2001




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