Bob Young wears more than a Linux Hat

Bob Young has one of the most recognizable names in the open source software industry. After all, in 1995 Young co-founded North Carolina-based Red Hat Inc., arguably the most successful commercial Linux vendor in the world.

Young still sits on Red Hat’s board of directors, but has taken less day-to-day interest in the company’s affairs. Today he is CEO of a digital content creation company,, which is to authors of fiction what Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes is to musicians. He’s also owner of the Canadian Football Leagues’ Hamilton Tiger Cats. Young, a native of Hamilton, Ont., first became interested in the industry as a budding entrepreneur and writer for the New York Unix User Group newsletter during the early 1980s – the same time he became acquainted with open source computing.

In a speech he delivered before a packed room at Comdex Canada several years ago, 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]…the strength of free software tools kept getting stronger.” The hobbyist image 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.

Young recently spoke with ComputerWorld Canada reporter Rebecca Reid about his opinions of open source software, where it is heading and how the IT industry will change as a result.

CW: What is the most interesting development in open source you’ve seen in the last couple of years?

Young: What you’re seeing now is all the leading IT corporations around the world using open source, not just doing trials, but doing serious implementations of open source technologies across their institutions. In the corporate world, the financial services companies in New York City are classic early adopters. They need to deploy the latest technology to steal a five-second advantage over their competitors.

CW: When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was in Toronto recently, he said often when companies migrate from Windows to Linux, they are motivated by political decisions, or distaste for Microsoft or packaged software. What’s your reaction to this?

Young: To hear Ballmer say that is just astounding because it was only a few years ago that everyone in the open source community was so frustrated with exactly the reverse phenomenon. People would avoid open source technology, despite the fact they knew it was better, because somehow they had to go with IBM or Microsoft.

CW: Studies have indicated that, as the Linux install base increases, so will the number of hacker attempts and viruses written. As a result, is Linux really more secure than Windows?

Young: The problem with Windows security is that because of the binary model you don’t have very good insight as to when you are secure or are not secure. You cannot even hire an expert to tell you if your systems are properly secure because he can’t look at the code – he actually doesn’t know what holes you’ve patched and what holes still exist that can be exploited. You’re completely dependent on Microsoft to tell you that. Open source looks less secure because you can hire an expert who can point to all the holes. But because you can find where the holes are in an open source solution, you can fix them.

CW: Is there any danger that Linux distributions could diverge to the point where they’re incompatible, similar to the divergence of Unix?

Young: The Unixes were all proprietary software. You went to AT&T and bought a license to Unix…and then you started adding features and functionality for your customers that you thought were going to give you competitive advantage. So all the Unixes immediately diverged because they were all proprietary solutions. In Linux, because it’s open source, Red Hat, [for example] was adding functionality that it thought their users needed and Caldera was adding functionality and so was SUSE [AG]. But at the end of the day we were all doing an open source model.

CW: Your idea to start up Red Hat derived from hanging out at Linux users groups. Where do you find your ideas?

Young: I find my next good idea by hanging out with the early adopters of whatever [new technology] and finding out what the controversy is, where the frustration is among the consumer, because in our society, a citizen and a consumer is the same person. The problem in the [Linux] user groups was with this binary only software model, so clearly there was a business opportunity in providing open source solutions.

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