Why Intel and Netscape bought Into Linux

Intel's investment in Linux distributor Red Hat - on the heels of its support for Microsoft rival Real Networks - does not mean a rift with Microsoft, says Intel VP Sean Maloney. But Netscape's John Paul predicts Linux 'will grow even faster than Windows NT. We will have real competition at the operating system level and that is good for everyone.' Linux creator Linus Torvalds suspects both companies have had the message from their big customers.

Who's really serious about Linux? On Tuesday, Intel and Netscape put their money where their mouth is by disclosing minority investments in Red Hat Software, the leading commercial supplier of the open-source operating system. Later in the day they explained their reasoning during a panel at the ISPCON conference here.

With Intel's recent announcement of support for Microsoft rival Real Networks, there has been much speculation that the Red Hat investment represents a further rift between Intel and Microsoft. But Intel vice president Sean Maloney downplayed those rumors. "We've always sought to get the most software on the Intel platform," he said. "Our investment in Linux doesn't affect our support and development efforts for NT in any way."

Versions of Linux, which runs on Intel PCs and servers and is considered more stable than Windows, are freely available via the Internet. Unlike Windows, the underlying source code to Linux is freely available to developers to license so they can customise the software. Companies like Red Hat package retail versions of Linux that they charge about $50 for, which include the software on CD-ROM, plus documentation and support.

Red Hat President Robert Young said the Intel/Netscape investment wasn't needed to support the company's retail effort but to gain credibility with corporate customers. "The key thing for growth of Linux in the commercial space is working with winners like Netscape," said Young. "If we can prove ourselves with Netscape, other application vendors who haven't ported their software to Linux yet will join in."

Linux has been gaining rapid support on the application side. Since July, the five leading providers of database software--Oracle, Informix, Computer Associates, Sybase and IBM--have all announced plans to support Red Hat's Linux OS. Corel also plans to port its Corel Office suite to Linux.

Linus Torvalds, the cheery, unassuming creator of Linux, said after the panel that Intel's attitude toward Linux had changed noticeably in the past three months. "I think Intel has been hearing from their big customers and inside their own company, that they want to see support from Intel for Linux," said Torvalds. He noted there is a Linux users group at the giant chip company.

Growing Faster Than NT Server?

Netscape moved slowly at first in its public statements of support for Linux because it didn't want to alarm corporate customers, according to John Paul, general manager of server products at Netscape. "But I'm no longer nervous about talking to enterprise customers about Linux and that is a big change," said Paul. "We consider Linux a tier-one platform that will be available for all our server products and we have made a major commitment to support it."

Paul applauded the spread of Intel servers running Windows NT. "But you need a good something else, and Linux is a good something else," said Paul. "I predict Linux will grow even faster than NT. We will have real competition at the operating system level and that is good for everyone."

Torvalds said he is not as surprised at the success of the Unix-based operating system as he was years ago when the number of users multiplied rapidly. He developed the software while a college student in Helsinki in 1991. "Everyone thinks Linux is an overnight phenomena, but I've been seeing it for seven years," said Torvalds.

He doesn't expect Microsoft to develop applications for Linux even though the installed base of Linux users is about the same as for the Macintosh where Microsoft is very successful. And what if Bill Gates called and said he wanted to develop for Linux? Said Torvalds: "If Microsoft ever does applications for Linux it means I've won."

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