Interview: SuSE takes Linux battle to Microsoft

Having fought his share of bloody hand-to-hand battles against Microsoft when he was in charge of IBM's OS/2 a decade ago, newly appointed SuSE Linux AG CEO Richard Seibt appears to have the experience needed to lead the German-based company into another uphill fight against Microsoft -- this time over Linux.

The 50-year-old Seibt, who replaced Gerhard Burtscher, has been with companies selling to large IT shops for 24 years -- 20 of those years with IBM in Germany. At IBM he held several executive posts within the company's worldwide business development, sales, and marketing organizations. He was CEO for IBM's Software Sales and Marketing group for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Next was a posting as general manager of sales and marketing of IBM Software for North America, including championing OS/2 and IBM's middleware. Most recently, Seibt served over the past four years as an Executive Board member of the German-based United Internet AG, where he had operational responsibility for several affiliates and the internationalization of United Internet and selected affiliates.

Two days into the SuSE job, Seibt sat down with InfoWorld Editor At Large Ed Scannell to discuss his thoughts on Linux's chances in succeeding against Windows on the desktop and the role that SuSE's Linux Desktop (to be announced at the LinuxWorld show in New York this week) can play. He also discussed plans to strengthen SuSE and the UnitedLinux consortium's ability to compete effectively against archrival Microsoft on both servers and clients.

Q: After being with a large and secure company like IBM for 20 years, what is the attraction of giving that up and jumping to a much smaller Linux-only company?Seibt: If you think about what Linux is today and what Linux will be or can be tomorrow, that is the kind of challenge we all live for. After my experience with some small companies, I compared that with working for a much larger company. I decided never would I join a large company. To run my own business, to define my strategy based upon market research, [to] be able to talk to people like you, and then make the decision in the evening and start to execute the next morning -- that is what it is all about with these young, fast-growing companies. Besides, I see this as a sort of historic opportunity that may not come along again.

Q: But how risky an opportunity is this? What do you hope to accomplish?Seibt: Think about what is available now in the Linux market. On one hand you have Red Hat and on the other it is SuSE along with the UnitedLinux [consortium]. With that, and looking at the demand which is available for Linux, we can build a company that can establish a huge presence. That is what is driving me.

Q: A lot of the opportunity out there seems to be gobbled up by companies like IBM and HP and other top-tier companies that are using Linux to further broaden their own cross-platform strategies. The Linux-only companies seem to be starving where these top-tier companies are feasting. What will it take for Linux OS distributors to start making a healthy living at this?Seibt: We need an additional three years to get to the point where we become an important company to the entire IT market. We need to focus harder on certification for both ISVs and IHVs [independent hardware vendors]. This is what is needed to increase the business of the server market. Second, we have to extend our availability into the different regions either by working with our UnitedLinux partners like SCO in the U.S. or Connectiva and Turbolinux in the other geographic regions. We need to build up various international companies that have a larger presence with corporate users. I think we need the next two or three years to become heavily profitable. Our target is to become profitable this year and there is a very good chance we can get there.

Q: Aside from the IBMs and HPs, who else do you need to partner with to advance Linux competitive situation?Seibt: There are many smaller ones, who are of regional importance, and we need to work with them as well. We still need to execute on our partner programs with large companies like IBM and HP, but on the other hand we need to work harder with many of the smaller ones who develop and deliver applications for specific markets. I am looking at large companies who concentrate on vertical markets like insurance, finance, and government. There are also the telecommunications and automotive markets that are important for us. So month by month and year by year, we will extend the number of vertical [markets] we support with an entire hardware and software stack they need to run their business on Linux.

Q: Having been a veteran of the OS/2-Windows desktop wars, what things did you learn from that combat that you can apply in your fight against Microsoft on the desktop?Seibt: We have a situation now which doesn't compare with OS/2. Fifteen years ago when IBM developed OS/2, it was a totally new operating system. If you look at Linux today, it is a Unix-based operating system and that means users have a lot of applications that are easy to port to Linux. On top of that, there is a strong need from all the other large operating systems like IBM with AIX or Hewlett Packard with HP-UX to find a solution. Ten and 15 years ago with OS/2 there was no support for it from hardware vendors, whereas today we have a lot of support [for Linux] from hardware. Also we had no OS/2-specific applications; we had to convince ISVs to build up their software on many different platforms. That was impossible at that point in time to get all the investments to cover the different operating systems. If you look at the Linux market now, most of the applications vendors have decided to support Windows and mainly Unix platforms, so it is in their interest to support Linux instead of all the different flavors of Unix. That is the reason why I believe Linux will be successful, because we are in a different stage of development compared to the time of OS/2. Back then it was all about the fight between Windows and OS/2 on the desktop and who will win. Today we are talking both servers and desktops. I think there is a huge difference.

Q: With a top Linux distributor such as MandrakeSoft SA filing for the equivalent of Chapter 11 just last week, do you expect a winnowing out of even top-tier Linux operating systems vendors, and would that be a good thing or a bad thing for the open-source community?Seibt: I don't believe it will be a bad thing. It tells you [that] you must have the right strategy to survive and that you can't make it on your own, that you need to partner. It strengthens the argument that you need to join organizations like UnitedLinux to survive. By doing so you are ensured of getting the support of all the large hardware and software vendors.

Q: How are discussions going with Red Hat to join UnitedLinux -- or are there any?Seibt: There are no talks in progress. If they want to join then I think the entire Linux [community] benefits. They have a huge market share in the U.S., and we have almost 80 percent in Germany and 60 percent in all of Europe. If they were to join United Linux, it would give the entire initiative another major push.

Q: What are the real short-term prospects for establishing even 10 percent share for Linux on the desktop?Seibt: First we have to distinguish between enterprise customers and SMB [small and medium-size business] customers. If I look at the large enterprise customers like Daimler Chrysler, they have to think about who needs what kind of desktop. I would guess that about 60 percent of their desktops can easily be moved to a Linux-based desktop. All of the users they have are not heavy Excel users, and so they can do everything they need to do every day with something like Open Office. If you think about Star Alliance or Luftanser, they still use OS/2 as their main operating system for their entire network. Many users are not using Office applications, they are using 3270 applications or host applications, so there is no need at all for any local intelligence. They can easily live with a desktop based upon Linux. So I would guess that in the enterprise market, if we categorize the users by those who do not need Office and all these sophisticated applications like Excel, probably at least 60 percent can easily go to a Linux-based desktop. If I look at the SMB market, I think we have the perfect product with the Linux Office Desktop. On one hand they can use Linux and Star Office or Open Office.

Q: Have you talked to OEMs about their interest in bundling the Linux Desktop?Seibt: This being my second day with the company, I have not talked to them yet. But it will be very important to talk to them and make them aware what kind of functionality we have developed. I have some experience in doing this with OS/2 in Germany with all the large PC manufacturers. I believe there is a very real opportunity to convince them to preload our desktop with both their servers and clients.

Q: If someone is having a problem with Microsoft Office running under Linux, I have to believe Microsoft would be reluctant to offer them any support and so they would have to turn to you for that support. Are you equipped to handle that?Seibt: In most cases corporate customers do not get support for Office from Microsoft today unless they sign a specific contract to get that support. So in most cases Microsoft does not offer that support. I would guess, however, that many independent companies specializing in software support would be available [and] eager to take on that business. In my previous job with a customer care company, we specialized in providing support for medium-size customers.

Q: How big is the opportunity getting for Linux in the government markets? What has been so appealing to them about Linux?Seibt: I can answer that question just looking at Europe. All of the governments there are under high cost pressure so they are looking for an alternative to Microsoft. Microsoft is now asking for so much money over so many years, they are simply angry. That is an important driving force. Plus, looking harder into Linux, they know this is something that can work. So now they have decided on a European-wide board to use Linux. There is one city in Germany that has entirely moved to Linux and away from Windows on both desktops and servers -- a 100 percent migration. The city of Munich is in the process of doing the same, although it will take a little longer because it is so much bigger.

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