Bob Young, chairman and co-founder of Red Hat, and Dirk Hohndel, chief technology officer of SuSE, weighed in Friday at the Linux World Conference and Expo.
Young said his company, which will bill about $US80 million this year, "never set out to be a big fish in a small pond .... My job is to worry about the size of the pond. If we can make the pond that much bigger, it creates more opportunities for everyone."
Hohndel said that for-profit companies play an important role in the cooperative Linux community by providing a "convenience product," boxed Linux operating systems that are easy for corporate customers to install and use. "Only if the large corporations buy into Linux will we have the possibility of changing the future of the IT industry," he said.
Both speakers seemed at pains to reassure the gathered Linux enthusiasts, many of them fiercely opposed to the market dominance of copyright-based, proprietary software, that they are committed to the open source model.
"If permanent copyrights had existed in the time of the ancient mathematicians, every time you wanted to use the Pythagorean Theorem or an isosceles triangle, you'd have to pay royalties," said Young, remarking that scientific progress is based on the sharing of knowledge, with each researcher building on previous innovations.
But the open source community, he continued, has a chance to challenge the encroaching intellectual property model by providing products that are more adaptable and appealing to users. "What's fun is we are fixing this stuff through the power of the marketplace ... you have the opportunity to fundamentally restructure the industry you work in, for the benefit of your customers, of the whole of society."
Said Young, "We do have engineers [at Red Hat] who believe that you will go to hell if you use proprietary software. But we're a for-profit company. Our idea is we'll look out for our customers better than the competition."
Asked how Linux can continue to gain users, given the relatively small number of desktop applications it supports, Young responded, "We have the killer applications of the 21st century ... all of the applications that form the infrastructure of the Internet and intranets."
All of the market growth in operating systems, he said, lies in embedded systems, Internet appliances, and server technology. With the growth of ASPs (application service providers), he continued, these areas will soon overtake the desktop PC market, the source of Microsoft's market dominance. "The user isn't aware that over the next five years his machine is going to migrate to an Internet appliance. It may look a lot like a PC, but it will be managed remotely."
Hohndel said Linux is already gaining ground in the desktop market, "replacing Windows in a lot of desktop environments." The operating system is spreading quickly beyond its European and US base, he said, in part because local engineers can easily adapt the software, meaning users of non-Roman alphabets like Hebrew, Chinese and Japanese don't have to wait for a proprietary software maker to decide a market is large enough to be worth making a local version.
Both speakers recognised the importance of developing uniform Linux standards. "We don't want to repeat the Unix wars of 15 years ago, when companies destroyed their own market by not cooperating on standards," said Hohndel.