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December 9, 1999


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'I fear a world that operates on Linux alone' 'I fear a world that operates on Linux alone' Neena Haridas

He has just bought a brand new IBM laptop -- the latest thing with all the digital bells and whistles Email this story to a friend. -- because he is always giving presentations and addressing packed audiences, and it gets a bit tedious to be fiddling with a machine that can't keep up with him.

Trouble is, the laptop is so hi-tech it isn't compatible with the projector set up at the Pragati maidan
Tug of war: Comdex
    vs Convergence

conference hall. Result: The audience had to rely on their internal neural network -- imagination, as we laymen would term it -- while looking up at a blank screen.

Well, welcome to India, Jon A Hall -- or 'Maddog', as he prefers to be called.

Hall come over to share his wisdom and experiences in operating system development with the Indian IT community at Comdex India '99. Maddog, a Jules Verne look-alike, has been in the computer industry for over a quarter century, 17 years of which he dabbled with UNIX.

He has been a software engineer, systems administrator, product manager, marketing manager and professional educator. Before accepting a job at VA Linux Systems, worked full-time for Linux International (a non-profit association of groups, corporations and others that work towards the promotion of, and helping direct the growth of, the Linux operating system and the Linux community).

Jon worked for Compaq in its Digital UNIX Marketing Group and at Bell Laboratories. And before that he was Department Head of Computer Science at Hartford State Technical College, where his students lovingly (or so he hopes) gave him the nickname 'Maddog'.

He has an MS in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1977) and a BS in Commerce and Engineering from Drexel University (1973).

He took off some time from his recalcitrant laptop to chat with Neena Haridas. Excerpts from the conversation:

The Linux operating system is distributed free, without any licenses.... Now India has a fetish for anything that is free. Do you see this aiding the growth of Linux in India?

(Laughs) That alone will not be the reason for the growth of Linux in India, or for that matter anywhere in the world. First of all, Linux is very convenient, compatible and cost-effective operating system.

Now, I find Indians very technology-savvy; they are beginning to appreciate Linux because it is stable, scales well, can be installed on any computer, and is compatible with any system when configured properly.

Why do you think people opt for Linux over the Windows operating system?

Well, today manufacturers have a choice of selling machines that are either installed with Linux or Windows. Now, if you want to install Linux, you don't have to pay any price nor do you have to make copies or take licenses.

It is absolutely free and hence the cost comes down. However, Windows is not free and you have to buy multiple licenses. This automatically increases the cost of manufacturing. Now, with Linux you can sell your products at a competitive price and, hence, make more profits.

Another reason why Linux is recommended is because it is a very flexible operating system. Whether you are a manufacturer or an end user -- updating the system or customising it is easy and can be done in-house, which is not the case with Windows.

Besides, Linux is compatible with almost all other systems; hence, functionality is not affected if you change from one to another.

Despite these advantages you claim for Linux, why is it that Windows still remains a popular operating system?

Windows came into existence almost 25 years ago. They have the first mover advantage. We developed Linux in 1994. But hardware companies such as Dell and IBM started installing Linux only in 1998. Hence, Linux has been in the market only for the last two years. And for all those years Windows has been strengthening itself with out much competition. But in the last two years Linux has managed to gain one-tenth's of the Windows market already.

I think that is incredible.

What are the problems that users face while using Linux?

Linux cannot be used on very high-end machines that use over 128 processors. Linux cannot run programmes that cannot be shut down -- such as a heart machine or nuclear power plant. But in such cases, it is better to use Unix at the high-end and Linux at the low-end since the two are totally compatible, and since it would very tiresome to have Windows at one end and Linux at the other.

When will Linux go to the high-end too?

Well, we are working towards it. I think in the next two years Linux could be used on high-end machines too.

What is your reading of the Indian IT industry?

I have been to India only once before, hence I cant be judgmental about the industry here. But, yes, I think that since IBM, Compaq and Microsoft have set up shop here I think there is great scope here. After all, they wouldn't have come here unless they got the returns.

How popular is Linux in India and how does it's growth here compare with that in other Asian countries?

Linux is gaining in popularity here and a Linux community already exists here. However, Linux is much more in demand in Korea, though I can't say much about China. But I know that in China the IT ministry have already adopted Linux as its operating system. Several companies in India -- such as Raymond, Times of India etc -- I am told, are using Linux.

How will you go about building the brand here?

Really, it for the Indian community to build the Linux brand here. I always tell people to form associations and groups that will focus on the country and develop Linux in the Indian context. There is already a Linux community in India, I am told, but they are not part of Linux International.

Nevertheless, I suggest that this community grow in size, interact with other Asian communities and grow in size.

How long do you think it will take for Linux to establish itself solidly in India?

I wish it would happen tomorrow. But then I don't think that is possible.

I can't really predict the time it will take but I suppose that once Linux is fully integrated it will become very popular. In fact I have been told that Indians here are working on localising Linux into regional languages. That is a brilliant idea. They already have Linux in several languages, then why shouldn't we have it in Hindu and Bengali?

Do you see a world operating on Linux alone?

I fear a world that operates on Linux alone or a world that operates on Windows alone. A fair world is the one that has competition. And that is what I see.

There is an argument that in the years to come there will be no operating systems, only browsers. Do you agree?

No, that is crazy. Simply crazy. Whoever says that does not have an idea of what he is talking about. We tried that 30 years ago, and, believe me, it doesn't work!

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