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Feature: Business

Interview: Bob Young after Red Hat

By Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier on November 08, 2005 (8:00:00 AM)

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Bob Young is, arguably, one of the most influential figures in the development of Linux and open source. By co-founding Red Hat with Mark Ewing in 1993, Young helped turn Linux into a household name. After being involved with Red Hat for more than 12 years, Young recently stepped down from Red Hat's board of directors. We caught up with him to see what his plans are, and what his thoughts are on Red Hat and the future of open source.

Young is now spending his time focusing on his most recent business venture, Lulu.com, a print on demand service where content creators can sell their books, comics, movies, or any other content that can be digitized and sold over the Web. The company handles sales and distribution of the work, and takes a cut from the sale price as well as a charge for the media itself. Users can also purchase copies of their work to sell directly.

How did Young make the leap from Linux to self-publishing? Lulu.com actually has its roots in the short-lived Center for the Public Domain (CPD), a non-profit Young founded with Mark Ewing in 1999. The CPD's mission was to help combat the expansion of intellectual property laws that were, as Young put it, "the biggest single threat to the open source movement."

The CPD shut its doors in 2002, and Young expressed dissatisfaction with working in the not-for-profit space. According to Young, what led to Lulu.com was the idea that the expansion of intellectual property laws was tied to the consolidation in the publishing industry, and wanting to solve the problem from a business point of view.

"You know, there really is a problem associated with the expansion of intellectual property, and if in a free market democracy, the citizen and the consumer are the same person, there's got to be a way of solving the problem in the marketplace."

Still, one might wonder why Young chose now to exit Red Hat. Young said that the work he was doing on Red Hat's board, while important, wasn't his cup of tea because the "bulk of your time is spent on the minutiae of dealing with SEC regulations and you're not really spending that much time helping the executive team fashion strategy; you're spending most of your time doing defensive things for the company, making sure that the company stays on side of all these arcane rules." At the same time, Young said that Lulu.com is "booming" and he wanted to devote more time to "helping Lulu get to the next stage."

Lulu isn't doing quite as well as Red Hat just yet, but the company is growing at a respectable pace. Young said that the company's sales are increasing at a rate of more than 10% a month. "We're selling in excess of 35,000 books a month. I believe we sold 40,000 in September. We have well over 30,000 books in our library, so to speak, of books. Gives you an idea that if you grow those numbers 10% a month, it doesn't take too many years before this is a very big business."

Open source makes it possible

Just because Young is no longer with Red Hat, it doesn't mean that he's lost his passion for open source. Young said that Lulu wouldn't be possible without open source software. "It is safe to say it would have cost well in excess of twice the investment, and it's cost several million dollars' worth of investment to get to Lulu where it is today. And it would have cost twice as much as that if we'd had to use proprietary software to do all of that."

In addition to cost savings, Young said that having access to source code has allowed the company to move more quickly. "Because when you're a startup, innovation is everything. Whatever you decide to do on day one is not going to work -- I mean, that's just a given. So therefore you have to be able to adapt your offering very quickly, going forward in response to your customers. And you can't do that if you're using Oracle databases and proprietary Web servers and proprietary programming tools.

Bob Young of Lulu.com
Bob Young of Lulu.com (Photo by M.J. Sharp)

"It improves your ability to build better tools, because you're not guessing at what's going on inside the database or inside the Web server. You're actually looking at the code, and when you build your application on top of it, you're not guessing at whether you're doing the right thing. You can actually watch the code cycle through and you can go, 'Jeez, now I see why it hiccupped on line 56.' You're not guessing at it anymore and that's simply a dramatically better way of building tools, especially building Internet-based tools, than trying to do it on proprietary software where you actually don't know what's going on."

Lulu.com contributes to some of the open source projects that it uses in the course of its business. The company has contributed to the development of the content management framework bitweaver, as well as LJBook, a program that converts blogs in a LiveJournal format into a PDF document that's ready to print. (Lulu.com uses PDF for sending books to the printer.)

Looking back at Red Hat

Now that Young has closed the door on his involvement with Red Hat, we asked if there was anything he would have done differently, given the benefit of hindsight. Young's response is that "you don't look gift horses in the mouth -- the point being that as an entrepreneur, to start a business in your wife's sewing closet and to have it be valued by the international financial market at over $3 billion 10 years later, you kind of go, 'No.' That's one of those size of success, quantity of success that you simply can't second guess."

Young had mentioned that he originally encouraged his engineers to use Fedora Core rather than Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), but that the company was now standardized on RHEL 4. Now that Young is on the customer's side, we asked what he thought of Red Hat's pricing model, which has drawn more than a little criticism as the company has grown. Young said that he thought Red Hat was approaching it the right way.

"Red Hat's offerings have to get better. They are not nearly good enough yet. And the people who are demanding these better offerings are major Fortune 1000 corporations around the world. So for the startups, or the Lulus in 2002, our Red Hat made Fedora available so all of the code Red Hat distributes, they distribute under an open source license, and as a consumer of open source and Linux technology, that's all I would ask them to do. How they then come up with a business model that enables them to pay for the engineering that major Fortune 1000 corporation need is a separate issue, and one that's between Red Hat and its customers."

We also asked Young about the rumors that Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik had met with Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. If Young were CEO, would he be willing to sit down with Microsoft? Young said he couldn't comment on whether Szulik had sat down with Microsoft, but that he would be willing to talk to Microsoft. "You talk to everyone. As my father points out, talk is cheap. But the key way to think of it is unless you sit down with everyone, you will not be properly educated."

On the GPL and the future

Earlier this year, Eric Raymond ruffled a few feathers by saying, "We don't need the GPL anymore." We asked Young if he too thought that the GPL was no longer necessary. Young said that he "couldn't disagree more," though he was quick to point out that he is simply "disagreeing with an interpretation of a friend of mine ... Eric and I are approaching this from different perspectives."

Because everyone is familiar with the GPL, Young said, there's no need for developers to read the license or worry about someone sneaking something in the back door. "So I would strongly argue just the reverse: that we will never outgrow the GPL. And that the GPL will continue to be the dominant open source licensing model, not because the GPL is the best license, but because it is the standard license."

What about Linux on the desktop? If Young's habits are any indication, it will be a while. Young's desktop of choice is Apple's Mac OS X. "I could not bring myself to go to Windows, of course. And one of the little-known facts -- 'cause, you know, I'm a skinny guy who wears glasses, everyone assumes that I'm an engineer by training -- I'm an old typewriter salesman by training. So maintaining my own Linux desktop was just something that I didn't have the training to do." He did note, however, that Lulu.com's engineers are all using Linux on their desktops.

Looking forward, we asked Young what other areas in the tech industry he found exciting. Young said that he still found the Internet exciting, though many people think that "there's no real opportunity for the little guy anymore.

"My take on it is just the reverse. It's that the big guys on the Internet today are gonna look small compared to the big guys on the Internet 10 years from now. And that there will be household names on the Internet 10 years from now that you and I have yet to hear of today."

Read the entire transcript of the interview ...

 

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on Interview: Bob Young after Red Hat

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Pathetic...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 09, 2005 06:21 AM
"I could not bring myself to go to Windows, of course. And one of the little-known facts -- 'cause, you know, I'm a skinny guy who wears glasses, everyone assumes that I'm an engineer by training -- I'm an old typewriter salesman by training. So maintaining my own Linux desktop was just something that I didn't have the training to do."

This is fucking pathetic, which shows exactly why Red Hat is not pushing linux on the desktop.

Red Hat tied itself to a losing proposition: Gnome. As a result, they have been unable and thus unwilling to push Linux as a desktop solution.

As the most visible Linux company in the US, Red Hat's failure on the desktop becomes a failure of the general linux desktop for the yellow press that passes as tech journalism these days.

If anyone wants to see what Linux on the desktop could be like they should look at KDE and Suse 10.

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Re:Pathetic...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 09, 2005 09:54 AM
Dude, stop venting your fustrations with not being able to contribute anything useful to the world on others.

What have you done for the Desktop lately?

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Re:Pathetic...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 09, 2005 11:36 PM
Fuck you and your distraction strategy. Answer the points that were raised.

If you neeed to know I founded a LUG and the NGO where I work uses Linux full-time

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Re:Pathetic...

Posted by: Joseph Cooper on November 10, 2005 05:48 AM
The "points that were raised" are irrelevant!

Do you even realize why we have multiple distributions? It's so that they can target things. Why do you expect every distribution company to do every damn thing?

No, Redhat is not pushing Linux on the desktop. That's not Redhat's BUSINESS to target the desktop.

There are also other distributions that do what you want; pursue the desktop.

There isn't just one distribution, because not all distributions are there to cater to everyone under the Sun. You can't make a monolithic server-desktop-thinclient-HPC cluster member-embedded operating system. It doesn't make any sense to even try. They have directly contradictory factors.

A server operating system does not want an enourmous fully featured desktop with every plugin imaginable on the taskbar. A desktop does not want high latency and a swappiness of 90. An embedded does not want 4 gigabytes of redundant programs. A rackmounted cluster unit does not want a huge kernel with support for a dozen sound cards.

That is why you have Redhat doing their thing, while other companies target the desktop, while others target the embedded, and so on.

Can you not handle the idea that not every distribution company is doing what you think is prudent? The very thought is very inheritly AGAINST everything that we're doing stands for!

This is not how it works. You don't make distributions conform to your taste. You're supposed to pick a distribution according to your taste. Cause, believe it or not, other people have differing taste, and we like to have something called "choice", not "every distribution should do the same damn thing".

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Re:Pathetic...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 12, 2005 03:22 AM
Actually, Red Hat contribute a huge amount of resources to the Desktop. For some reason that always gets overlooked. BTW I am on the desktop team working on mostly hardware infrastructure such as D-Bus and HAL. Infrastructure isn't as sexy as other projects so I guess people don't equate it with working on the Desktop which is cool because if the Linux desktop just feels better but a person isn't sure exactly why then I am doing my job.

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No... Awesome.

Posted by: Joseph Cooper on November 09, 2005 12:36 PM
The vast majority of people use Windows.

The Windows desktop has features about like IceWM or something. There's a taskbar, some buttons, stuff on the desktop, a clock and the menu.

Let that set in for a moment, then realize that to a lot of people, this qualifies as a feature creep.

I'm telling you that, from ~experience~ with ~real people~ as the IT administrator at my company, that if you get someone using Gnome, and then one day switch it to KDE, it's unlikely they'd even ask unless you changed the menus around and they couldn't find something.

This is just another stupid Gnome vs. KDE or Vi vs. Emacs or Pepsi vs. Coke argument, or whatever mundane non-issue you wanna take and turn into some debate of inherit morality.

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Re:No... Awesome.

Posted by: Joe Klemmer on November 09, 2005 10:20 PM
> Vi vs. Emacs


Hey now, do you be talkin' 'bout vi(m) like that. Everything else is truly an insignificant argument (GNOME and KDE are 99.9% the same for people who just use computers, as you have stated) but vi(m) is the One and Only®. Death to emacs!


And for the humor impaired: I'm just joking.

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Re:No... Awesome.

Posted by: Joseph Cooper on November 10, 2005 01:37 AM
Bullshit. Pepsi and Coke are the real deal.

Coke wins. Period. If you don't agree, you're a pop-music loving corporate shill. Go listen to Britney Spears.

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Re:No... Awesome.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 14, 2005 08:57 PM
Yes... my taste buds tell me what tastes good based on which corporation paid for a pop-music spokesperson. Yeah, that makes sense.

I am sure you make plenty of smart purchases.

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Re:Pathetic...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 09, 2005 01:20 PM
Yeah how do you feel now that Novell is going GNOME for Suse, huh?
OS X all the way

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Re:Pathetic...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 09, 2005 02:06 PM
pal u are so owned...

by the way i use suse 10. i like both kde gnome.
i use gnome for now though with two great kde apps amarok, k3b.

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Re: RaptorHead is moving to the forefront

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 10, 2005 12:51 AM
Just heard from the grapevine that Raptorhead.com, a company that is shipping and supporting open-source applications on Windows PC. This might not please Linux purist but from my perspective, getting the mass consumers to get use to using open-source apps is the key to mass acceptance. This strategy is like "defanging" the snake methodically. Remember, Linux on the desktop is like a marathon race. At this point I see it as "mixed source on the desktop"

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Re: RaptorHead is moving to the forefront

Posted by: Joseph Cooper on November 10, 2005 01:34 AM
FireFox is the first step to that. Recent statistics actually suggest it's about 10% of the market...

This is important, because at this point, that whole IE lockin thing is pretty dead.

In fact, all the computers here run FireFox on Windows98, 2k and XP, for security reasons.

Ironically, it's more idiot-proof. It's very easy for a non-guru to get spyware with IE, while FireFox is better for people who don't know what they're doing. I'd call that a win.

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You know...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 10, 2005 12:50 AM
You know.... But you know?

Jeez. I've never heard "You know" so many times in _ONE_ article, you know?

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Better Software and Tools?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 10, 2005 09:07 PM
Anyway, Red Hat's offerings have to get better. They are not nearly good enough yet. And the people who are demanding these better offerings are major Fortune 1000 corporations around the world.

Well, the development tools they use and the administration interfaces they give to developers have to get better. The reason why they're not making much headway on that front is because their engineers are bogged down in maintaining and dealing with so much bullshit.

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