Jon Maddog Hall on Linux, saving money and ruling the world

At the age of four Jon Maddog Hall stuck the wires from a rabbit-ear television antenna into an electric socket which sent him flying across the room. Acknowledging the power of technology, Hall went on to forge a career and life based around it. He has been a software engineer, systems administrator, product manager, marketing manager and professional educator. Hall has been the executive director of Linux International since 1995, the first four years as a volunteer. He has been employed by VA Linux systems, Compaq Computer in the Digital Unix marketing group and Bell Laboratories among other companies.

He will be speaking at this year's Linux World Conference to be held in Sydney March 28 to 30. Even though Hall wishes he could have 50 hours in a day and use Star Trek transporters instead of planes to save time, he managed to take the time to speak with Computerworld about his life, open source, Linux International and the upcoming conference.

How did you get your nick name?

Let's just say it came from a time when I had less control over my temper.

Do you bite?

Depends on who it is and what they have done.

What is your first memory of technology impacting your life?

That would be when I was trying to make a Jacob's ladder out of a set of TV "rabbit ear" antenna at the age of four by sticking the wires in the electric outlet. I flew about four feet through the air. It left a real impression.

I also helped my father put together toys for a toy store when I was growing up, and I studied electronics when I was in high school.

When did you start using Linux or open source?

I was using Free Open Source Software (FOSS) in 1969, but we did not call it that at the time. We called it "software".

Back then, most, if not all, software came in source code form. At that time software development was definitely more of a service model of software than a product model. Then in 1977, when shrink-wrapped programs began to appear on the shelves, source code distribution started to go away.

Digital Equipment Corporation Users' Society (DECUS) had a library of 'Free Software', which allowed me to study software as an impoverished student in 1969. I could not afford $US100,000 for a compiler. So I got compilers from DECUS.

Later on, DECUS helped me again when I was teaching college. We could not afford proprietary software for our computers, so DECUS came through.

Still later, when working at Digital, I helped bring FSF's GNU software, and other software, to our customers. They wanted it and needed it, to the chagrin of our other product managers.

Finally, in 1994, I was introduced to Linus Torvalds, and my life was changed forever. I came back from that meeting and told my fellow workers "Linux is inevitable". I even put that message in a slide presentation, in 1994.

What turns you into a "mad dog", in other words, what gets you angry?

People saying, "It can't be done."

Sure, some things "can't be done", but others are just "difficult". Too many times I have shown that "can't be done" stuff could be done in a quarter of a day. Imagine how fast it could have been done if it was just "hard"?

The word "just" normally sets me off as well, when it is applied to a person, as in "I am just a user, or I am just a teacher." Every human is unique, they are not "just" anything.

So what makes you happy?

Good friends. Enthusiastic students. Enthusiastic teachers. Warm sandy beaches.

What most attracts you to Linux and FOSS- is it the technology or the ethics or a combination?

A combination, but additionally it is the enthusiasm of the community, the "can do" attitude. It is the lowering of barriers to people using computers.

It is the "fun" that Linus talks about.

Where do you see Linux heading in the next five to 10 years?

World domination.

Linus used to joke about this in his early talks, but it was only half-joking. Now we are serious.

But it is not just "Linux", or even "GNU/Linux", it is free software in general. It is the expansion of free software out to free business practices and a realization that in lots of ways we need to cooperate with each other, even our "competitors", more.

So you anticipate it will continue to become more widely used by consumer, business and government including in the desktop space?

Will the sun rise tomorrow? It is already being used in lots of embedded systems, super computers, server systems and now is battling its way out onto the desktop, particularly in non-US countries.

How will Linux and FOSS give Microsoft a run for its money?

We already are. Microsoft is stuck because their entire business model is based on products. Their services are delivered through VARs and Resellers. VARs and Resellers will realize that they can deliver more functionality to their customers, but save the royalties that they would send to Microsoft, putting those profits in their pockets instead.

Customers will realize that return on investment (ROI) overrules total cost of ownership (TCO), and they will tell Microsoft that they, as customers, will not buy any more software from Microsoft unless it is "free". Then Free and Open Source Software will blossom overnight.

Can you explain what the recent new direction for Linux International (LI) is, and why it has come about?

We are turning into an end user organization.

In the early days of Linux it did not make much sense to have an end user organization, since we did not have many end users. Now that we have many more end users, and those numbers are increasing at a rapid pace, it makes sense.

What changes will we see in the next few months as a result of this new direction?

A much more end-user focused organization, one oriented to helping end users do things.

Slashdot reports, SourceForge develops software, LI will help people DO. There are many end users who like Free Software, and want to help it move forward, but do not know what to do, or how to do it. LI will be the catalyst in the formula.

So how many members does Linux International have these days?

None actually. We are in the process of radically changing the organization, the charter, the mission, and overhauling our Web site. I hope by the time your readers see this interview that things will have been re-done and life will go on. However, LI has groups of people who have told me that they will join as soon as we are ready to accept them, so I think membership will grow very rapidly. We will have several international groups joining and participating from the first day.

As we were setting up the Web site, I had the "Join" mechanism turned on for a couple of days, and 200 people signed up even without my asking them to do so. I hope for a lot of people to join and participate.

What are some challenges you face in heading up Linux International and doing everything else you do?

Time. I wish there was 50 hours in the day, or else it would be great if I did not have to sleep. It would be wonderful if transporters were available like Star Trek, and aeroplanes did not take time to go from one place to another. Having enough time to do everything I need and still have time to talk to people as friends is difficult.

A second challenge is getting others to see the vision also. Vulcan mind-melding would also be a great help here.

You say that "you can bet your business on Free Software"; how do you back up that statement?

How can you bet your business on proprietary software? If a company is bought, goes bankrupt or merges or decides to delete a product line you have no choice but to go with whatever product or path they desire. How can you plan when the company keeps changing its licensing terms, and you have no real alternatives? What do you do when the company that makes your software puts its own profits and its values ahead of yours, the customer? When the software company holds back on releasing the latest bug fix so it fits its "release schedule?" When you can't get that one little feature added that would allow you to streamline your business, save a lot of money and beat your competition to market?

What happens if that company (no matter where it is) is embargoed?

Can you expand a little on what you will be talking about at the Linux world conference?

You hear a lot today about total cost of ownership (TCO). Well, TCO is important, because if you do not have the money to implement the solution, you are not going anywhere. But a lot of times you could borrow the money, and if that solution offered to you was five or six times more powerful than the one you would buy "off the shelf", and save you five or six times more money in the long run, wouldn't it be smarter to take the one that gives better ROI? Perhaps better ROI with lower risk? People have become used to buying what is offered them, not deciding what they want and going after that better solution.

Microsoft's Linux developer Bill Hilf pulled out of the conference. There has been some press suggesting that this may be because Microsoft does not want to let Hilf in front of the media. Do you agree?

I have no idea why Hilf pulled out of the conference. I can, however, imagine how I would feel coming to a conference that (for the most part) was openly hostile to me. I would rather spend my time at a conference where I might have a few friends, although in his case I can not imagine where that would be.

I, on the other hand, would love to go to a Microsoft conference and do a keynote to tell people how well Linux interoperates with Microsoft products. But Microsoft never invites me!

I did participate in a panel in Portugal with a Microsoft manager regarding "Entrepreneurship and Management". He told what a great company Microsoft was. I told people how to make and save money.

Tell me a little more about the John Lions' auction that you are planning to hold at the conference and how much you hope to raise from it. (John Lions was an Australian-born computer scientist and is best known for his book, Lion's Commentary on Unix 6th edition, with Source Code. He was the founding president of the Australian Unix Users' Group 1984-86.)

Whatever I can get.

USENIX will match what I get from the sale up to a total of $US250,000. I already have raised $23,000 for a digital clock (signed by Linus Torvalds) and a copy of John Lion's book, signed by Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Kirk McKusick, Eric Allman, Peter Salus and Linus Torvalds. That $23,000 will be matched by USENIX for a total of $46,000. It is my goal to use up all of USENIX's money (I am on its board of directors, by the way), so I hope that my items will bring a lot at Linux World. After all, John was a professor at UNSW in Sydney, and he trained a lot of students in Sydney. His teachings also sold a lot of computers, and perhaps one of the vendors would not mind displaying a copy of his book in their sales office. Or having a REAL Unix licence plate on their wall, directly off my Jeep Wrangler. There is a long history behind that licence plate, and many, many copies of it were handed out by Digital (and now the Open Group) over the years, but not an ORIGINAL. And finally, a digital clock, made by my hands and signed by Linus Torvalds.

What exactly will the money go to?

To create a chair [at UNSW] in honor of John Lions. The Chair will be called The John Lions Chair in Operating Systems, and will enable an eminent academic to continue the John Lions tradition of insightful and inspirational teaching in operating systems.

What are some of the items you think will fetch a high price?

I think the book will bring the highest, although I have hopes for the license plate. I think the license plate will look VERY nice on some company's wall, and perhaps some of the Unix vendors will really appreciate the history behind it, especially Hewlett Packard. Of course Sun and IBM might bid to keep it out of Hewlett Packard's hands. At the auction in New Zealand we actually had consortiums form to bid on it.

Are there any particularly bizarre items that will go for auction?

I think the licence plate is a little bizarre, but the clock is also a bit bizarre. It is made from a CD-ROM put out by the Linux Journal many years ago. The CD-ROM was a "sample test case" for putting articles of the Linux Journal onto CD, and has some of their earliest articles on there.

The CD also has a nice penguin on the front, and a quartz clock motor attached to it. But most of all it has Linus Torvald's signature and the words "Happy Linuxing" on it. Linus tolerates this type of request from me, because I always make sure the proceeds go to some type of charity. The last clock I auctioned brought $750, which of course was doubled by USENIX.

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More about: Bell Laboratories, Compaq, Compaq Computer, Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett Packard, HIS Limited, IBM, Linux Journal, Microsoft, Open Group, Socket, UNSW, Va Linux, VA Linux Systems
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