Bob Young: Life, Linux and Lulu

The IT industry hit an evolutionary dead end the moment source code was separated from binaries, a problem Linux has helped fix, according to the Canadian who helped create the wold’s best-known open source distributor.

One day after he made headlines across Canada with his purchase of the Hamilton

Tiger-Cats, Bob Young told a dinner meeting of the Canadian Information Processing Society there was a common theme to his work with Linux, his new firm Lulu and the football team. All three, he said, will flourish if they can cultivate a sense of community. Young, who started his career with Hamilton Computer Rentals, is best known as the co-founder of Red Hat Software Inc., which markets a version of the Linux operating system. Though he remains a Red Hat director, Young this year founded Lulu, which will allow authors, artists and musicians to publish their own works online.

Young said he saw a number of parallels between his current venture and his work with Linux, which he said empowered the customer in a way that isn’t possible with proprietary operating systems. “”Imagine if you bought a toaster at Wal-Mart and it didn’t work, and you could only buy another toaster from Wal-Mart,”” he said. “”That’s what we were dealing with in software up until now.””

Though the statistics show few companies tinkering with mission-critical software at such a minute level, Young said the numbers are deceptive. “”It’s more like 95 per cent of them change it five per cent of the time,”” he said.

Lulu, which Young has developed by purchasing online textbook publisher OpenMind Publishing Group and Internet music collaboration firm, will similarly free authors and artists from the confines of traditional publishers and recording companies, he said. “”We’ll be looking for them to bring a market with them,”” he said, “”but there’s a great opportunity here.””

Brian Robertson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, said he had his doubts.

“”To the extent that it promotes new talent and provides them with a venue, we support that,”” he said. “”In my experience, however, it’s very difficult to do that without also putting more marketing resources behind them.””

Young, however, pointed to his experience in the computer rental business as a way of getting around a lack of sales and marketing. Rather than focus on out-marketing the competition, Hamilton Computer Rentals sold products to local reseller chains like Computerland and MicroAge, who in turn offered Young’s firm leasing referrals. Hamilton Computer Rentals would shower these sales reps with gifts, but they weren’t given any exclusive deals.

“”These guys all liked us. It wasn’t hard to make them like us,”” said Young. “”What we learned is that in most cases, other people don’t like you, but nor do they dislike you. We took that concept to Red Hat. It was this concept of everyone’s my friend — with the possible exception of Microsoft.””

Red Hat, Young said, grew out of his attempts to understand how Heinz, for example, could become the market leader selling ketchup — something that almost anyone can make out of tomatoes. “”It’s as close to free software as you can get. You can mix it up with water and not break any copyright,”” he said. “”What we realized is that Heinz delivered a consistent quality of product — even if you couldn’t get it out of the bottle.””

Recognizing these kinds of opportunities is what drives him, Young said, adding that those who parlay their contributions properly, like Bill Gates, get acclaim and those who don’t are ignored. Linux provided another example. Richard Stallman, with the GNU project, created the essence of open source, but Linus Torvalds, by coming up with the kernel, gave Linux the engine it needed. “”Richard Stallman demands more credit than he deserves,”” Young said. “”Linus gets more credit than he deserves.””

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Shane Schick
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