Bob Young: Because of the much lower cost, open source should do very well in this economy

Bob Young has played a key role in building Linux into a household name. In 1993, with Mark Ewing, he co-founded Red Hat and was the CEO of the company for several years. After leaving Red Hat, he started a print-on-demand website called Lulu, where content creators can sell their books, comics, movies, or any other content that can be digitised and sold over the Web. Young also owns the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a Canadian football league franchise that he purchased in 2003. In this interview with LFY, he talks about Lulu.

What attracted you to open source and eventually to co-founding Red Hat?

I was unemployed.

How did you arrive at a revenue model in open source? Did you have a role model?

Cygnus Solutions was doing reasonably well selling custom engineering services that adapted open source languages and compilers for new processor platforms, mostly for the embedded market.

And there were a few very small Linux competitors, such as Yggdrasil, Turbo Linux and SuSE, who were experimenting with business models at the same time Red Hat was starting up. Only SuSE has survived today as a part of Novell Corporation.

Red Hat’s innovation was to understand that users of proprietary software wanted control over the software they were using, but the suppliers (Sun Microsystems, IBM and Microsoft, among others) were not prepared to give them control. Which gave Red Hat its business opportunity. As [Richard] Stallman would have said, “It was not about price, it was about freedom.”

Since you mentioned RMS, how do you differentiate between free software and open source software?

I don’t! You’ll have to ask Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond. They have had many public debates on the fine points of difference. I see open source as simply a better marketing term than ‘free’ software.

Today, more and more people and organisations are migrating to Linux. How do you view this trend?

Linus Torvalds used to joke when asked about the future of Linux—he would say, “World domination!” Seriously, in an interconnected world made possible by the Internet, the reliability of the systems that are connected together becomes ever more important. Only when the managers of those systems have control over their systems (that is, source code and a licence to modify it) can they build proper reliable networks. Open source is simply a better model of software development and deployment for the Internet age than the traditional proprietary model.

From an open source software platform, how did you enter the digital market and publishing? What is the story behind setting up Lulu?

Most open source software is built on a sort of barter system, where professional engineering teams trade software that they develop for a greater amount of software that the broader community develops. On the other hand the fact is there are many unpaid volunteers. That these valuable contributors were unpaid used to worry me. Similarly, I ran into many capable authors who could not earn money from their books as they had been refused by publishers. Using the Internet, Lulu can help authors sell their work to their readers for trivial cost.

Lulu was founded as an effort to enable creators to get paid for the work they do, if they need to get paid. In particular, documentation writers need a business model if they are to continue to write up-to-date revised documentation for all the open source software this worldwide community of developers is producing. We want to help readers identify the long tail products.

So, there is some connection between Lulu and open source…

We like to think that we are enabling a form of ‘open publishing’ where the authors have control of the publishing process and do not have to ask permission of a publisher to make their work available to the market. Much like open source enabling the engineers who use open source software to do what they need to the software, without asking permission of the proprietary software company.

What is Lulu’s vision?

As Linus would say, “World Domination!” ;-)

Tell us something about Hamilton Tiger Cats. How do you connect open source, publishing and football?

Not much! Although there is an interesting connection in that all three are very much “community” oriented projects. Tiger-Cat fans feel strongly that it is ‘their’ team as it connects them to each other and to the community they live in. In the same way, Red Hat Linux users feel that they own Linux not Red Hat. And they are right in both cases.

In these times of an economic meltdown, how do you think users respond to open source?

Because of the much lower cost, open source should do very well in this economy.

Is the economic upheaval affecting the Linux market too?

Not as badly as the proprietary software vendors ;-)

What challenges do you see for people migrating to Linux?

None! Well, okay, it is a new technology. As with any new technology, there is a learning curve.

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