Business

The war for the desktop

Ross Laver July 20 1998
Business

The war for the desktop

Ross Laver July 20 1998

The war for the desktop

Ross Laver

Eight years ago, Bob Young was running a $15 million-a-year computer rental business in Toronto. Today, from his new headquarters in an office park just outside Raleigh, N.C., he’s helping to lead a revolution in computing—one that may soon pose a serious challenge to the power of Microsoft Corp. And what’s even more remarkable is that his company’s main product is, for all intents and purposes, free.

Sure, it sounds crazy. But we’re talking here about the computer industry, where the normal rules of business don’t apply. If they did, Bill Gates might still be running an obscure little software factory in Seattle and the Internet would have remained an underground data network favored mainly by university researchers and hard-core techies.

So what? So if Bob Young says he’s on to the Next Big Thing in computing, it’s entirely possible he’s right.

Young, 44, who was born and raised in Hamilton, is the chief executive officer of Red Hat Software Inc., a four-year-old company that distributes the Linux operating system. Linux isn’t well-known among run-ofthe-mill computer users, but it’s spreading like a computer virus among software engineers, Web site operators and hacker hobbyists. Conservative estimates put the total number of Linux installations at about five million and doubling every year. That’s still a small fraction of the estimated 200 million computers running Microsoft Windows, but rest assured that Gates and his minions are looking over their shoulders.

They have every reason to be worried, because Linux isn’t just a new operating system, it’s a new way of looking at the software market. It was developed seven years ago in Helsinki by a 21-year-old university student named Linus Torvalds, who wanted to create his own version of AT&T’s Unix operating system. Once he got it up and running, Torvalds posted a copy of Linux on the Internet and invited other programmers to comment and offer improvements. Before long, engineers around the world were contributing their expertise, united by the challenge of creating the world’s best operating system.

The key to this co-operative effort is

Hamilton native Bob Young is helping to lead an underground revolution in computing

something called the General Public Licence, which allows programmers to sell, copy or make changes to Linux as long as they, like Torvalds, make the underlying computer code freely available to the public. Thanks to the GPL, Linux has evolved in a kind of Darwinian process of natural selection, becoming more powerful and more popular with each passing month. There are user groups in every major North American and European city, made up of programmers who appreciate its flexibility and would dearly love to see the rug pulled out from under Microsoft. In some quarters, the enthusiasm for Linux resembles a kind of religious fervor.

Which brings us to Bob Young, who is about as passionate a supporter of Linux as you’re likely to find. His company, Red Hat, is the world’s leading commercial distributor of Linux and expects to sell 400,000 copies of it in 1998 at $74 a pop. How’s this for a business model? Anyone who wants to use Linux can download its various components for free from the Internet, but most people find it faster and more convenient to buy a copy of it on CD-ROM, and companies such as Red Hat are happy to oblige. Young likens it to the ketchup business: you can buy all of the ingredients in any grocery store, but why go to the trouble when you can buy a bottle of Heinz for less than a buck?

The big question now is whether Linux can make the leap from the fringes of the computer trade to the mainstream marketplace. Young believes it’s already happening. He points out that close to half of all the computer servers connected to the Net are already running Linux in conjunction with Apache, a popular and similarly free Web server program. Last month, IBM announced its support for the “freeware” movement, and Netscape, Oracle and Sun Microsystems are reportedly planning to follow suit. Ottawa’s Corel Corp. is already selling a Linux version of WordPerfect, and recently chose Linux as the operating system for its NetWinder network computer.

“The beauty of Linux,” says Young, “is that it’s free and it’s open, which means everybody has an incentive to make it successful.” Everyone, that is, except Bill Gates.