A Fight to the Finnish

Why Linux Quite Appropriately Scares the Bejesus Out of Microsoft

By Robert X. Cringely

PBS Online

September 10, 1998

I spent an afternoon last week with Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system. Fortunately for me, I didn't have to visit Helsinki, Finland, where both Linus and Linux were born. For the last year and a half, Linus has been living in Santa Clara, California.

The whole phenomenon of Linux is a story too amazing to be true. A 21 year-old college student in Finland decided to create and give away his own clone of the Unix operating system to run on PCs. Seven years later, Linux has between seven and eight million users, runs on every major and minor microprocessor family, has thousands of programmers devoted to improving and extending it, is giving Microsoft major fits, and still costs nothing.

Luck of course plays a large role in this story, but not as large a role as I had originally assumed. Linus turns out to be a remarkable fellow with exactly the right character to make something like this work. He may be only 28, but Linus is a very solid guy. He's totally devoted to both the concept of creating solid, powerful software and to giving it away. He exudes an integrity that goes far beyond the smug cleverness one feels at Microsoft. Maybe that's why he's so misunderstood in Redmond.

The key to the success of Linux goes far beyond the price. Free is good, of course, but the true strength of Linux is the international movement to improve and extend it. Linus estimates that there are only a dozen or so people like him who devote most of their time to Linux. Nearly all the other Linux programmers are doing it a few hours here and there. Yet, here's this world class operating system, continually appearing in new versions and with new features. How can that be?

Linus attributes the high quality of Linux (its very stable compared to many other operating systems including Microsoft Windows) to the grass roots development effort. This would seem to contradict the idea many people have that it takes a high buck development operation to create great software. Just the opposite, says Linus, who claims that free software is nearly always better.


"It's very simple," said Linus. "Because the software is free, there is no pressure to release it before it is really ready just to achieve some sales target. Every version of Linux is declared to be finished only when it is actually finished, which explains why it is so solid. The other reason why free software is better is because the personal reputation of the developer is attached to every release. If you are making something to give away to the world, something that represents to millions of users your philosophy of computing, you will always make it the very best product you can make. That's the reason why Linux is a success."

How can Microsoft compete with that argument? It's hard, and the internal struggle to come up with a good response is evident. In the same week that Microsoft president Steve Ballmer told the Seybold audience in San Francisco that Microsoft is targeting Linux and Apache (the free Web server that is the most popular in the world) the company couldn't tell me HOW they are going to respond to Linux. They certainly won't respond on price, since there is no way to undercut free. We're much more likely to see a campaign of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Microsoft used to dismiss Linux as 1980s technology, which pretty much describes both Linux and Windows it seems to me. Now they'll start talking about "total cost of ownership" and find some way to make it look like using free software is more expensive in the long run than using software from Microsoft. Linux is certainly not free, but if you saw the story that flew around the 'Net recently comparing Microsoft tech support with the Psychic Friends Network, you'll realize that just because Microsoft has a big support operation doesn't mean you'll actually get a solution to your problem.

Linux scares Microsoft on several levels. There's this business of giving the software away for free, which is totally confusing to Bill Gates — confusing and scary, since it undermines the entire basis of his fortune. But it's the breadth of Linux and its potential on other platforms that also scares Microsoft. At a time when Microsoft is trying to be sure its software runs on all the network computers, set-top boxes, and other new machine types that just might replace in our hearts the PC, the Linux Router Project offers the guts of just such an operating system for free on a single 1.44 meg floppy disk. But what scares Microsoft most of all about Linux is the defection of developers, which are beginning to make Linux a very popular platform for server applications.

Take Sergey Brin and Larry Page, for example. They are a couple of doctoral students in computer science at Stanford University who are building their Internet startup company around Linux. Brin and Page are throwing themselves into what would appear to be the already overcrowded market for Internet search engines. Their engine and their company are both called Google and quite purposefully sit atop Linux rather than some other variant of Unix or atop Microsoft's Windows NT.

Google has more going for it than just a great name. It also has some great technology to help searchers actually find what they are looking for. To do this, Google tries to take into account in each search the underlying wisdom of the Internet, itself. This is based on the idea that the market has intelligence, though in this case the market is one for information, not stocks and bonds. So Google looks not just at the Web pages that contain the keywords used in your query, but it also looks at how many other pages are linked to the pages it finds.

The idea here is that your query about Studebaker automobiles may return a thousand or more pages, but among those pages, some have been linked to by other pages. Creating a link from one page to another says that the page being linked to has real value to the linker and might have real value to the rest of us. So Google presents first the sites that have the most links and are therefore the most popular. This presumes, of course, that popularity is for a reason, which it didn't seem to be at my high school. How about at yours?

So Google is hot. These fresh-faced kids from Stanford have a good idea that's implemented well. And it is implemented on Linux, not NT, which worries the heck out of Microsoft. Ironically, Google is based in Stanford's William Gates building.

"The only time I saw Bill Gates was at the building dedication," said Google founder Sergey Brin. "Gates was coming down the hall with the department chairman and he asked 'What operating system do you have running on all these PCs?' Well of course they were all running Linux, but the chairman kind of coughed and said the department used many different operating systems."

Linus Torvalds has never met Bill Gates, but I have, and both men are to be reckoned with. It's easy to dismiss Linus' tract house with the Pontiac Grand Am parked in the driveway, but don't do it. Look for the considerable substance inside that has made Linux the success it is. Linus is an ethnic Swede born in Finland. He's part of the five percent of the Finnish population that speaks Swedish, so he is used to being part of a minority and maintaining his culture in an environment that is overwhelmingly dominated by others. Next to this, Microsoft is not such a big deal. And don't discount Mrs. Torvalds, either. This mother of two is the six-time Finnish national karate champion. Melinda Gates wouldn't have a hope.


Copyright 1998 PBS Online