Bob Young, tete-a-tete with the monopoly

Red Hat Chairman Bob Young. This column will be my last to appear on LinuxWorld.com before the site becomes part of its parent at ITworld.com. It's only because of my intimate knowledge of the Internet's dark side, and a few of the more shadowy characters I've met there, that it appears at all.

You probably remember the firestorm of controversy that Microsoft Vice President Jim Allchin created with his unfortunate remark implying that open source code is un-American. If you do, then you probably remember as well that Red Hat Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Matt Szulik challenged Microsoft to debate the issue. When Redmond declined the invitation, Red Hat Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Michael Tiemann wrote a standalone response to Allchin's remarks. You can find a link to that response in the Resources section. Tiemann's response was all well and good, but it left me hungry. I still wanted to see Microsoft and Red Hat go mano a mano. Time passed, but the desire still gnawed at me. I had to take action.

I opened my little black book and flipped through it. Suddenly, it came to me. There was a name in the book that might be able to help: the evil, the nefarious, the dastardly Steve Barkto. He owed me a big one for not exposing his true identity after he was discovered on Canopus to be a Microsoft employee years ago. I called his secret cell-phone number and spoke to him while he was over the Atlantic on the way to London. Barkto reluctantly agreed to use all of his considerable powers of persuasion to get someone from the dark side to join in conversation with a bigwig from Red Hat. A couple of phone calls later and it was all set. In one corner would be Bob Young, founder and chairman of Red Hat. In the other would be Jim Allmouth, senior vice president of PHMs at a large monopoly software firm. I was literally tingling with anticipation.

Young's background with Red Hat is well known. He is a cornerstone of the Linux community and heads up the world's most popular distribution of Linux. Allmouth is not so well known, so I dug up a little background on him. When he graduated from high school, he was voted "Most Likely to Become the Next Joe McCarthy" by classmates. Allmouth has been using personal computers for over six months, and he credits that background with providing him all the savvy he needs to lead software innovation within the monopoly. Favorite book: The Prince. Favorite flag: American. Favorite breakfast: Seeds of Competition. Favorite item on menu: everything. Allmouth is above all else the epitome of Ambrose Bierce's definition of a patriot, and his remarks reek of the kind of patriotism Bierce made famous.

The encounter began with a sneer and decidedly unfriendly remarks by Allmouth. But enough of the commentary. Here's the rumble, just the way it went down.

Allmouth: Young. Is that an American name?

Young: It's a Scottish name. Like every other American, I come from somewhere else.

Allmouth: OK then, Mister Dot Comski, if you are not now, nor have you ever been a Marxist/Leninist commie, then why did you call your company "Red" Hat?

Young: The point to the Red Hat was that we needed a name that people would recognize. We didn't want one of those very indistinguishable, high-tech names like High Tech Linux, or SuperFast Computers, or Micro Tech, or MicroSoft, or any of those other definitely forgettable names.

Allmouth: With a name like Red Hat Linux, how can you protect the company from becoming un-American? Especially when so many Linux hackers are not American. Can you deny that neither Linus Torvalds nor Alan Cox is American?

Young: As a matter of fact, America is the leader in the high-tech industry. It achieves that leadership position by being the most effective economy at drawing from the brilliant contributions of others around the world. I'm sure that even the industry leaders, who have lobbied for the expansion of H-1B visas, have not missed the importance of drawing on the skills available in other countries.

Allmouth: How do "you people" expect us to be able innovate if we are not free to take open source code, like Kerberos for example, and lock it up behind IP laws?

Young: IP law is a powerful tool for protecting an existing vendor's market position. But most of the innovation and most of the profits that occur in any free market occur because suppliers have their customers' interests foremost in mind, and they don't have their own interests foremost in mind. So the whole point of this open source movement is of course empowering the customers. We fully understand that many other monopoly suppliers, like the electricity company, and the phone companies, would prefer not to give their customers much choice. But those of us who make our living by being innovative and building new companies understand the value of delivering control over the technology to our customers. And so if our customers need control over the technology, then we absolutely have to ensure that the technology remains open for our customers' use, and does not get locked up by anyone, whether it is the government or some electrical monopoly.

Allmouth: Do you disagree that the GPL reduces the motivation to innovate?

Young: Well, I don't know. As good Marxist/Leninist communists -- some of us weren't rounded up by Joe McCarthy -- we're proud, card-carrying members; we understand that us little people out there in the trenches are in fact the guys responsible for most of the innovation in our society. And, for us innovators to succeed, we have to ensure that we have access to knowledge and expertise. If the major publishers like Viacom, or Sony, or Disney -- or Microsoft -- end up restricting the proletariat's access to the knowledge that we need to innovate, it would be very dangerous for the health of our economy going forward, and this is why the technology workers of the world have united around the GPL.

Allmouth: Hey.. you guys are selling software too. If I can cut you a deal, would you like to join the Business Software Alliance to help protect your company from your customers copying and sharing Red Hat Linux?

Young: The point to it is -- if we are delivering value to our customers, and if you understood the value was not actually in the code itself but was in the success that our customers are getting by having, for the first time, control over the technology they use, then clearly we should get together in order to accelerate the innovation and success our customers will have if we allow them to have control over the technology that we are asking them to invest in. However, as I understand it, your corporate charter doesn't allow for surrendering control over anything to anybody. So I'm not sure that would be a useful conversation.

Allmouth: How do you explain the decline of the Nasdaq, and in fact, tech stocks in general, being in direct proportion to the growth of Linux?

Young: Yes, Jim. You've caught me! It is a plot to undermine the Western world!

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