Linux Foundation: We'd love to work with Microsoft

In an interview, Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation's executive director, talks about desire to interoperate and discusses the desktop outlook for Linux

Jim Zemlin is the executive director of the Linux Foundation. Formerly executive director of the Free Standards Group, Zemlin also has served as vice president of marketing for Covalent Technologies, providing products and services for the Apache Web server. Zemlin has also been a keynote speaker at industry and financial conferences including Gartner's Open Source Conference and Linux World. Zemlin met with InfoWorld Editor at Large Paul Krill this week to talk about Linux topics ranging from overtures to Microsoft to the progress of Linux on the desktop.

InfoWorld: What's the role of the Linux Foundation?

Zemlin: We obviously are the home of [Linux founder] Linus Torvalds. We sort of focus on three main areas in terms of the platform. The first area is to promote Linux as a technology solution, and that's across embedded, mobile, server, desktop computing. We respond to competitive marketing on behalf of the platform, so when competitors are out spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about open source or if there is a general lack of understanding of open-source licensing practices or governance practices, our organization plays a role educating [the] industry and end-users on those issues. We protect the platform by allowing people like Linus Torvalds to work as fellows at the foundation so that they can be neutral actors in a mass collaboration project like Linux. We manage the Linux trademark. We have a legal defense fund for the platform. We work with the USPTO (Patent and Trademark Office) on patent quality issues. And we do that work to improve the quality of software patents and protect the platform. And then finally, we work on the standardizing the Linux platform.

InfoWorld: What kind of legal protection does Linux require? And has anything ever come of the Microsoft protest that there's Linux code that they patented or something to that effect?

Zemlin: What they were talking about were patents that Microsoft holds in a range of areas. They didn't actually disclose what those were, but in general felt that they overlapped with other technology. No, nothing ever became of it because everybody holds patents on everything out there lately in software. 

InfoWorld: You have a legal defense fund. Should people have legal concerns about using Linux?

Zemlin: Just like any other major software platform, there'll be patent trolls or opportunists who try to harm the platform. The SCO Group was a good example of that. In fact, the legal defense fund was created to assist in defense of the platform in the SCO lawsuit. And so that's a good example. 

InfoWorld: What became of that?

Zemlin: SCO lost the lawsuit, it was found that there were no copyright infringements that were there in the Linux platform, and it was proven that Novell indeed owned the copyright to the software that SCO alleged was theirs. And SCO was de-listed from Nasdaq and is now in bankruptcy proceedings.

InfoWorld: Is there anything happening as far as using the GNU General Public license version 3 for Linux, or is that just not happening?

Zemlin: It's not happening today. In the future there may be, but I think it's unlikely at this point. Linus, who is fairly influential in the license decision, has publicly stated that he's not interested in GPL3 at this time.

InfoWorld: Linux has established itself on the server. What progress is being made with Linux on the desktop?

Zemlin: It's an interesting year for Linux on the desktop. We are starting to see some of the major levers of platform adoption for desktop computing be pulled more dramatically this year than they ever have. If you think about what makes a desktop platform successful, the fact that Windows comes pre-installed on most computers when they're purchased on the marketplace obviously [is a] big advantage. And you're starting to see companies do the same with Linux. You're starting to see companies like Asus and their Eee PC. It's a small subnotebook that costs, I think, less than $400. It comes pre-installed with the Linux platform, and it really enables them to target a whole new demographic that they've never been able to effectively sell into before, you know, in Asia, women over 30, or people who could never afford a $600 to $1,000 PC. And you're seeing those offerings now being replicated from Everex with their CloudBook product. Lenovo is now shipping Linux on its X series line of products. You're starting to see for the first time...  Dell announced last year that they are shipping pre-installed Ubuntu Linux specifically, on their notebooks.

So you're starting to see OEMs pre-ship Linux for the first time, which is interesting, but if you look kind of underneath that, the more interesting picture is -- why are they doing that? What is compelling them? Is it because Linux is more functional than it's ever been? The answer there is yes, it is more functional. But that functionality combined with the economics of the situation, where if you think about the bill of materials for a PC, [if] you've got Microsoft in there, I think the OEM [cost] is somewhere between $50 to $75 to license Windows. On a $300-400 PC you're talking 30-40 percent of the price of the computer, which is a significant amount of money. So not only is it one of the largest components of the actual PC, but it's the highest margin component, right? If you look at the stock market, you can see Microsoft has about a 30 percent net profit. You've got Intel making like 15 percent profit margins. Then you've got Dell at like 5 percent. And so when companies like Dell or Asus or Lenovo or all these companies look at those profit margins, they say, "Why wouldn't I just create my own operating system and ship it with the device? I'm therefore higher up the food chain with a higher margin product on a lower priced PC that I can use to penetrate larger markets."

InfoWorld: But Windows is still on 98, 99 percent of PC desktops anyway, so do you think that number or that percentage will decrease?

Zemlin: Yes. Yes, I think it will actually.

InfoWorld: What's the penetration of Linux on handhelds?

Zemlin: Pretty high. I'll have to get you a specific market size number. It's in the tens of millions sold.

InfoWorld: We keep hearing about how, except for the United States and maybe a few other places, most Internet access is going be done on handheld devices.

Zemlin: Yes. Let me walk you through what's going on with Linux in that market. Similar economics [are] interestingly in effect there. [With] Motorola, for example, the Razr product is a Linux-based device. Now people don't know that because it's branded Motorola and it has a user interface, it doesn't say Linux all over it. What you're seeing in the Linux in mobile world is the emergence of several Linux-based platforms. Google has a platform called Android. That's a Linux-based platform, and they're building an SDK around that and working with handset manufacturers and telecommunications carriers to get that platform adopted in the market. There's a second group called the LiMo Foundation, [which] is an organization largely made up of handset manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Motorola, and others who are creating a mobile Linux reference platform for their devices. There's an organization called OpenMoko, which is creating a completely open-source phone.

So what you're seeing there [are] several organizations creating a Linux-based smartphone and trying to provide a development platform for those devices. The reason that they're choosing Linux is the same reason that PC world is starting to choose Linux. If you're a Motorola or an LG, would you rather, per device basis when you're selling tens of millions of devices, license Windows Mobile or the Symbian platform from Nokia, or would you rather have Linux, which is collaboratively designed, which supports every major architecture?

InfoWorld: So are Microsoft's days as the dominant provider of desktop and server and maybe even handheld operating systems numbered?

Zemlin: Monopolies don't last forever, so I mean, I think they've got a long way to go. It's just natural over time that people aren't going to allow a single company to dominate the market. But the more important thing that Microsoft I think is grappling with now, and you saw that recently they've opened up their protocols and they're trying to be a more open company, is they realize that there's been a fundamental shift in how companies create innovative products and compete in the marketplace. And companies are doing that through open and mass collaboration. They look at companies like Google, Facebook, organizations like Wikipedia. They look at the Human Genome Project and Linux, and all of these things that are crossing normal R&D boundaries -- you go hire the best people, we keep them inside, we closely guard our intellectual property -- [are] being turned inside out. And Microsoft is having a hard time competing in that world.

InfoWorld: That's why you think Microsoft did that announcement a few weeks ago where they opened up the documentation?

Zemlin: I think they did it to placate regulators, and I think they did it because half the company realizes that the world is going toward that model and that they need to do that to complete.

InfoWorld: Wouldn't the emergence of Linux kind of say that maybe Microsoft never really was a monopoly, that there was always room for somebody else to compete in there and that's what Linux is now doing?

Zemlin: It obviously was a desktop monopoly for a period of time. It was never a pure monopoly on the server. 

InfoWorld: Apparently, Microsoft is going to get together with the Eclipse Foundation next week. Are there any accommodations between or collaborations between Microsoft and the Linux Foundation?

Zemlin: Not at this time, but we'd love to do it.

InfoWorld: What would you like to see?

Zemlin: We'd like to have a place where developers can come and work on making Linux more effectively interoperate with Microsoft products. And we'd like to do that in the open-source way that's not tied to any specific marketing agreement, that's not tied to any specific contract, that is an open process that can be participated in by anyone in the community.

InfoWorld: What's the interoperability problem now?

Zemlin: I mean I think there's always room for improvement around areas like the Samba Project, which is file-sharing; networking around virtual machines, and the management of those across different platforms.

InfoWorld: Have you approached Microsoft about any of this?

Zemlin: No, not formally. I mean I think that they know that the offer is out there.

InfoWorld: At the MIX08 show last week, one of the topics was the Moonlight, which is about Microsoft's accommodating Linux with the [Novell-built] Moonlight version of the Silverlight client. Don't you think that Microsoft is recognizing and accommodating Linux at least to that small degree?

Zemlin: I think they're trying to be competitive, because certainly if you look at Adobe's AIR platform and the development tools, they are for sure on Linux. Obviously, Microsoft recognizes that these type of cross-platform new media development tools and runtime environments are critical.

InfoWorld: How far can the free software movement go?

Zemlin: The world is moving toward a place where mass collaboration is sort of essential to be competitive. Single companies can't think of every good idea. [With] Linux, for example, the work that's done in enabling real-time support in the Linux kernel for mission-critical financial systems on Wall Street, that same technology goes into benefit the mobile world. Power management technology for an extended battery life in Linux in the mobile [space] goes into the server world, reducing the cost of the energy footprint of the data center. So this stuff is extremely sophisticated, and when you talk about free software and how far "free" can go, I think that misses part of the conversation of how far this mass collaboration can go, which I think is the more important precedent to the second part, which is -- how do you monetize it. Right? And so what's clear to me is that Linux, as an example, and other similar -- whether it's Wikipedia or Facebook or Google or any of the other typical examples of incredible work that's done in this mass collaboration model -- are easily monetized. Red Hat has proven that certainly in the open-source world, that they can offer service and support and training.

InfoWorld: I don't think their revenues are approaching anything close to say, Microsoft or Oracle.

Zemlin: Obviously not because they're an open platform that competes at providing customer value and doesn't have the luxury of high-margin monopoly numbers. But is that for the bad of mankind? I think not. Yes, the days of high-margin, vendor lock-in monopoly practices in the software business, yes, those are gone, and they're permanently gone.

InfoWorld: Is Linux on par with, say, Solaris or maybe some of the older mainframe systems, and even Windows Server in areas like virtualization and security and things of that nature?

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