Seeing Red
An interview with Red Hat Software's CEO, Bob Young

- Interviewed by Thomas Caldwell -

Young is one of the leaders of what is being called the Linux Revolution, a revolt threatening Microsoft's domination of the world software market and promising to fundamentally change how the entire computer industry operates. During his first visit to Japan to attend Tokyo’s Linux Word '99 and deliver the keynote address, Young - a native of Canada - took time to hold a joint interview with a handful of reporters. Among them was CJ's Thomas Caldwell who asked about his company's plans for Japan.

 

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Although Linus Torvalds is the man who gave Linux to the world, Bob Young is credited with being instrumental in putting it into the hands of millions of users. Red Hat Software, the company he helped found in 1995, has also brought business suit credibility to an operating system that until very recently was widely perceived as fit only for computer nerds and hackers.

This is your first visit to Japan, and your company is now taking a serious look at the Japanese market. But there are already many Linux users in this country and one company, Pacific HiTech, has more than 50 percent of the market wrapped up with a completely localized product. What is Red Hat going to offer its customers here that your competitors are not?

Bob Young: Red Hat is already, even in Japan, hugely popular among engineers and other sophisticated users because of our focus on delivering unique benefits. Distributors like Pacific HiTech and some of the others have done a very good job at the retail level, but when we come into Japan, it will be to deliver support and services to the corporate users — the enterprise technology users who have been using a great deal of Red Hat that they actually don’t buy from us [in CD-ROM format] but have downloaded off the Internet.

Japan is traditionally a country where things that are inexpensive or free are looked upon as not being of very good quality. Linux is, effectively, free — anyone can put out his or her own distribution. Do you see a problem with selling or distributing a service and a product in Japan that is viewed as “for free” as opposed to one that costs tens or hundreds of thousands of yen?

Young: The answer is: I did. In January of 1998, we had just won the InfoWorld Product of the Year Award for the second time, yet we were getting all this resistance from MIS directors. The perception of “if it is free it can’t be any good” is not only true in Japan, it is true across the globe. Enterprises do not like buying technology, they want to buy solutions. From the technology point of view, they would love to use quill and ink if they could get away with it because they understand it. They use technology if it solves a business problem. So what we had to get was the endorsement of the Intels and the Netscapes, the IBMs, Compaqs, Oracles, and Novels in order to overcome that problem. [We needed] to get people who were used to understanding how the computer industry worked to recognize there was another way this industry could work. They obviously are not going to take my word for it, but they might take [IBM Chairman & CEO] Lou Gerstner’s word for it or [Oracle Chairman & CEO] Larry Ellison’s word for it. That is why I use the past tense and say “I did.” That is why you now see all this momentum. That is why that conference room [LinuxWorld ‘99 in Tokyo] was so packed. It is because we have managed to prove to the marketplace that this is a better solution for so many applications. IBM wants to offer Linux to their customers because they can solve more of their customer’s problems than with technology like Windows NT.

You indicated earlier that you are not after the retail market so much as the corporate one. Which Japanese companies are currently Red Hat users and to what extent do they depend on your product?

Young: It might be easier to identify the ones that are not Red Hat Linux users. But having said that, what I can’t do is name them until I can find spokespersons within these companies who are willing to go public.

Many are calling your company the next Microsoft and you the next Bill Gates. How do you like the comparison?

Young: It frustrates me because it is so fundamentally inaccurate. We cannot become the next Microsoft. Under the [open source] license that we deal in, there is just no opportunity for us there. We have a leadership opportunity, we don’t have a control opportunity. Put it this way: If we are successful beyond our wildest dreams and took every single customer Bill Gates has away from him, we would successfully turn his $5 billion a year operating system business into something worth $500 million. Well, that’s a big enough market for me. Red Hat would be pleased to have a big share of such a big market. But that definitely doesn’t make me the next Microsoft. There is fundamental inaccuracy in the assumption behind that comparison [to Bill Gates] that is somewhat frustrating. It shows we really need to educate our users because it is linked very closely with the primary benefit of using Linux. We don’t control [Linux]. Users aren’t subject to a Bill Gates-type benevolent dictatorship.

Have you ever met Bill Gates?

Young: Yes, I did briefly, years ago. Seemed like a nice guy.

During the press conference you gave at the LinuxWorld show, when I asked you about your plans to open an office in Japan, you gave a very intriguing “no comment.” Since Pacific HiTech has the jump on you in the market, can you go into any details about what your plans are over the next year? Japan? Asia? What about China - where Linux has recently made such a big splash?

Young: I take issue with one point you’re making, which is that “recently” Linux has made a big splash in China. Years ago, at least what seems like years ago in the Linux business, in the summer of 1995, there was a big push in the US Congress by a bunch of American trade organizations to have China disqualified as a favored nation trading partner. One of these US trade organizations started making a big issue about the Chinese pirating of software and he managed to get himself on television to show how “evil” China is because they pirate software. He held up examples of CD-ROMs that were supposedly examples of pirated software. One of these CD-ROMs was red and marked “Red Linux.” I tried contacting the TV network in question to explain to them that it is not possible to pirate Linux, but the reporter I spoke to had never heard of Linux and didn’t seem to care. The point is that Linux has been in Japan and in China for quite a few years. What is new is the official use of Linux by businesses and other enterprises. That’s what’s creating all the buzz in the media. When you get the support of the IBMs, the Compaqs, and the Intels, suddenly the journalists realize that something significant is happening. When only the otaku [computer geeks] were using Linux, then there was a question as to whether or not it would be important in the future of computing. IBM is supporting Linux because IBM is finding that their customers are asking for it. As for our plans, well, I’m going to completely duck your question. But I would be surprised if you were not hearing from us by early summer. We intend to move very quickly.

For more on Linux, see Linux Stampede Begins in CJNN Issue No. 28, March 21.





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