According to Bob Young, it took a working-class guy from Hamilton, Ont. to recognize the commercial merits of the Linux operating system.

“All you white collar folks from Toronto wouldn’t have a clue,” Young joked, speaking to hundreds of attendees during a keynote address at the recent Comdex Canada ’99 in Toronto.

Young is CEO of Durham, N.C.-based Red Hat Inc., one of the most established commercial Linux vendors. He was also born and raised in Hamilton, a town best known for its steel mills, located on the shore of Lake Ontario about 60 km west of Toronto.

According to Young, Linux’s simple, workmanlike construction and no frills approach are features the IT equivalent of a steel worker appreciates.

That’s because Linux, and open source software – or “free software,” as Young prefers to call it — in general was made by and for the workers in the trenches. The rise of the Internet helped them evolve into a thriving community.

“The vast majority of software engineers are employed by places like insurance companies to write proprietary applications, ” he said, adding that they have needs no generic platform can solve.

Because Red Hat is applying to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to offer publicly traded stock, Young was forbidden by law from talking about the future of Red Hat, or even the future of Linux. Instead, he opted for several personal anecdotes about his personal history.

Young told about his days as a budding entrepreneur and writer for the New York Unix User Group newsletter during the early 1980s – the same time he became first acquainted with open source computing. He admitted that, as a businessman, the lack of a traditional buy-sell economic model made him doubt the future of free software

“I concluded, OK, this is a fluke,” he recalled. “[But] instead of Steve Jobs’ Next OS taking off…(and) instead of OS/2 taking over the world, what happened is the strength of free software tools kept getting stronger.”

That’s because the image of teenagers or geeks holed up in basements rebelling against an unseen enemy – an image often associated with Linux — is a myth, Young said. In fact, there was an economic model – but one that wasn’t readily apparent to him at the time.

“The vast majority of this code is being written by professionals who are being paid to write this software.” These are the people who need Linux to perform vital, day-to-day enterprise computing, and thus have an interest in seeing it evolve properly, he said.

According to Young, the best way for Linux to compete with vendor-owned operating systems is for the Linux community to focus on a niche. In the case of Linux, the niche is professional users looking for an easily customizable platform that can be used to perform precise, complex tasks, he said.

And since it was designed to give users the flexibility they need to build their own solutions, Linux simply makes more sense, Young added. “It looks so much more like the way our society functions.”