Interview with Linspire CEO Michael Robertson

OSNews “sat down” with Linspire CEO Michael Robertson for a Q&A about his company’s efforts as the banner-carrier for Linux-on-the-desktop. We discussed the upcoming Linux Desktop Summit in San Diego and the perceptions and realities of the obstacles to widespread desktop Linux use. Linspire also extended a special offer to OSNews readers: a free download of Linspire and a 30 day CNR subscription, so put yourself in Granny’s shoes (not literally, please) and give it a try. Correction: The free offer expires on January 15.
Special offer for OSNews readers: A free download of Linspire and 30 days of CNR service, available through this link. The offer expires on January 15, so act fast.

OSNews: Tell us about the Desktop Linux Summit. Who will be there, and what will you be talking about?

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Michael Robertson: This is our 3rd year sponsoring the Summit and it will be held Feb. 9-11th, 2005 in sunny San Diego and is the best conference value going. A $99 registration fee gains complete access to this 3-day event and includes food and a t-shirt. See desktopsummit.com to register. This is not a money maker for Linspire obviously, but we think it’s critically important to bring all the parties related to desktop Linux together once a year. We did this same thing when I was the CEO of MP3.com with the annual MP3 Summit, which was instrumental in the proliferation of the digital music space.

Our speaker list includes Mitch Kapor of Lotus fame and Rob Glaser, CEO of Real Networks plus many more popular speakers we’ve had in years past. New this year is a half day dedicated to OpenOffice.org where OpenOffice 2.0 and a Microsoft Access replacement will be on display. Another half day will be dedicated to Mozilla technologies including Firefox and Thunderbird. We’ll have Mitchell Baker, President of Mozilla Foundation speaking. We’ve got great sponsors lined up including most of the leaders in the Linux business, but we’re probably most excited about new companies like AMD and Real Networks who want to help Linux grow. It’s such a huge job, we need to cultivate an industry, not a company to make desktop Linux a reality. That’s the goal of the Desktop Summit.

OSN: Linspire seems to be trying to take up the banner of Linux on the desktop, with your sponsorship of the Desktop Linux Summit, in particular. Conventional wisdom these days is still “Linux is great on the server, but far from ready for desktop use.” I’d like to throw out some of the main arguments against Linux being ready for the desktop, and get your reaction to them:

MR: We would agree that the conventional wisdom has been “Linux is great on servers, but not ready for the desktop.” It’s true when we started Linspire, the quality and number of applications for Linux was meager, but there’s been a dramatic change the last few years that’s nothing short of revolutionary. Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Lsongs, Lphoto, The Gimp, Nvu, KDE, and many other initiatives have made incredible strides which now make Linux practical on the desktop. Our goal now is to educate people how the world has changed. We often point people to the CNR (click-n-run) Warehouse where they can browse all the titles available today for Linux. See: http://linspire.com/warehouse All of which can be installed with one click. Desktop Linux is now easier then Microsoft Windows to add, remove and keep updated software programs.

OSN: First issue: Limited support for any peripheral device a user might pick up at the local computer store, and difficulty in implementing that support even if it’s available.

MR: This is another area where users will be pleasantly surprised if they give Linux a try. Peripheral manufactures and software developers have done a solid job of supporting a wide range of devices from USB drives to digital cameras to ethernet cards. We launched a site called Lfriendly to help people locate and understand the wealth of supported devices today for Linux, and it’s only getting better.

OSN: Common software is not available on the Linux platform, including popular home software like Quicken and the latest games. Work-alikes that are available, sometimes have limited compatibility.

MR: For most of the popular categories of software, Linux offers several capable options often which can read legacy Microsoft Windows formats. The biggest missing category is high-end games. Fortunately, the trend in this area is towards consoles. $149 will buy an Xbox or Playstation. There are more than 100 million game consoles and now that they are gaining network access I think the migration away from PC games and to more console games will be even faster. Also, there is a growing number of people who simply need an affordable, reliable, virus-free, and secure computer for basic computing, web work, and so on. Linspire is ideal for these users.

OSN: Though Linux is highly customizable, a lot of that customization does not come easy, involves editing configuration files, etc.

MR: All the main applications are now fully graphical. I have used Linspire for several years and haven’t edited a configuration file. Editing configuration files was something required a couple of years ago, but not today. Our main goal here at Linspire is to make Linux easy and approachable for anyone. We’ve all been running Linspire Linux here at our offices with our 85 employees for a couple of years, and go to great lengths to refine any rough edges and make it one-click easy for everyone.

OSN: Because of fragmentation, skills learned on one “Linux” may not translate over to another (Gnome vs KDE, different package management systems, etc).

MR: We ship Linspire with both Gnome and KDE applications. Our IM client is Gaim, but other core applications are KDE. Really the only annoying difference is in the Open/Save dialog box. Hopefully, we can bring these two more together in the future. With Linspire we try to use consistent themes between all the applications, so to the user, they can’t really even tell the difference between Gaim, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and KDE applications.

As for different package management systems, this is why we created CNR. CNR is not just for installing software programs with one click, but it also handles all updating. An auto-update feature will update one or all the programs on a computer. It couldn’t be easier. It’s the way computers should work. One click and you’re updated. I can setup a new Linspire computer with a custom configuration in just 5 minutes using CNR “aisles.” All the messiness of libraries and packages are hidden from the user. It’s why Linux is now practical for the Wal-mart customer, education, home, and businesses alike.


Continuing the list of perveived weaknesses of Linux on the desktop…

OSN: The often-mentioned nastiness of Linux advocates on the internet, and their impatience for anyone with a “noob” question.

MR: Our target is the “noob,” and work hard to help these new users. We have multimedia tutorials which walk users through all the basics. Our forums are loaded with helpful people, many who came to Linspire as “noob” Linux users themselves. We have telephone and email support which we offer our customers. To go beyond a small percentage of desktop users, Linux needs to be inviting to the non-techno elite. That’s where our focus is. In a way, we are to desktop Linux what AOL was to the Internet. AOL wasn’t for the techno elite, but that group recommended it to all their non-technical friends. Without the Internet becoming easy for the average consumer, it wouldn’t have grown like it has, which then in turns draws more resources to the Internet, helping everyone. The more people using Linux on their desktop, the more resources that will flow to it, benefiting “noobs” and experts alike.

OSN: The quirkiness and “slowness” of X, and the limitation that puts on the Linux GUI.

MR: We don’t think desktop Linux is being held back by X or any other technical limitation. The biggest challenges are educating consumers that desktop Linux is now practical for many uses and building the distribution channels to get it in front of consumers. It’s hard work supporting retailers, distributors and OEMs, but that’s what’s needed most. Any minor technical limitations that Linux may still have, are far out weighed by some of the many problems Microsoft Windows users face, such as viruses, security, expensive and proprietary software, and so on.

OSN: Many people point out that while Windows (and a drive full of common Windows software) is expensive, that since all bargain PCs come with Windows anyway, and indeed, most potential Linux users have already paid for Windows and already have it on their computer, that there’s little incentive to make the switch for economic reasons. For example, you sell a $299 computer. But Dell also sells a $299 computer that includes Windows XP and WordPerfect. What’s a non-techie home user’s incentive to pick yours?

MR: There are 3 reasons that people consider desktop Linux and Linspire. First is price. If they can avoid $100 for the OS, several hundred for an office suit, and hundreds more for Frontpage, Visio and Frontpage and instead replace them with ultra-affordable open source titles, that’s an enormous advantage. The second reason people are considering desktop Linux is to avoid the cost and hassle of endless security issues from viruses, spyware, and other malicious software which are now part of the daily life for Microsoft Windows users. Today, these are basically non-existent for Linux so users can focus on getting their jobs done and not baby-sitting their computer. And Linspire makes Linux easy to use and maintain by making things point and click easy. We work hard at auto-configuring all the common file formats and devices from inline Quicktime movies to the latest printers. And if they need more software, they can add it with a single click using CNR.

If someone has already paid for Microsoft Windows XP, then they are a much tougher sell for desktop Linux because the number one driver is value. The largest opportunities for desktop Linux in the near term are the “green field” opportunities in emerging markets. If we can give someone a desktop Linux computer before they spend money and time on Microsoft Windows XP, then that’s ideal. It’s fascinating to look at lraiser.com and see exactly where hundreds of new desktop Linux users are sprouting up every single day all around the globe. In the US and other first world countries, I think the sweet spot is in cost conscience businesses, second and third computer homes, and schools.

OSN: Others might say that Linux has some potential now in the technical workstation space or centrally-managed business desktop, but is still too rough for the home user. What do you think are the essential differences between business and home uses, and is there anything about Linux today that makes it suitable for one and not the other? Would you agree that Linux has a stronger entry point right now in businesses than it does in the home?

MR: Well for businesses the lack of ability to support the latest games is actually a feature. πŸ™‚ Since Linux does a great job with core office duties and internet tasks, it’s well-suited for business deployment today. We are working on large deployments with companies in telecommunications, entertainment and software businesses right now. Most are migrating their customer support staff first who do most of their work inside a web browser and then moving to their wider employee base. The cost savings and virtually non-existent security issues are compelling to businesses. However, we have hundreds of new Linspire users each day, and the majority of those are from consumers looking for affordability and security. We have to work harder to support those users, because they use a wide range of peripherals, software, etc., but it helps us get better and road tests us for when businesses are ready to try Linux.

OSN: What do you think are the core qualities that a non-techie home user is looking for in a computer, and why do you think a Linux system would fit the bill? And why wouldn’t a Windows XP system or a Mac fit just as well or better?

MR: Home users needs are not that different from business users. Remember Microsoft sells the identical products to both. Cost and security are again the largest factors. Home users are probably more concerned with support since they don’t have a technical staff to call upon. Apple makes great products, but they are very, very expensive.

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