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Words of a maddog

Apr 19, 1999, 00:23 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Dave Whitinger)

In this telephone interview, Linux Today's Dave Whitinger connected with Jon 'maddog' Hall, the Executive Director of Linux International.

LT: Can we get a little background on the person behind the name, Jon 'maddog' Hall?

maddog: I started off being an electrical engineer when I was in college, and after seeing a friend of mine fried by 13,600 volts and 400 amps, which was not a pretty sight, I decided to switch over to the software thing, where I figured 5 volts and a milli-amp would do it for me.

My first programming was done on an IBM 1130, with a correspondence course on how to program FORTRAN, and I seemed to have a flair for doing that. I moved from there to programming in Assembly language on a PDP-8, which I also taught myself by reading a book. I really liked the PDP-8 because it was a real "hands-on" computer, and not one kept behind a glass wall. That was actually my first experience with Digital's computers as well. From there I programmed various machines, and I actually graduated with a degree in commerce and engineering, which was half-business and half-engineering.

Back in those days there were few schools that had real computer science degrees, so most of the time you got some other degree, with a "minor" in computers. From there, I went to Aetna Life and Casualty, where I programmed on IBM mainframes in Assembly language. I did that for 4 or 5 years while I was getting my masters degree at night.

When I got my masters degree, I said, "I'd really like to teach." So I went off to teach at a small two year technical college. I did that for about three and a half years. That was a great time of my life, I really enjoyed teaching. The students were great and the school was fine, but the only problem is that I have a certain flamboyant lifestyle that is decidedly different than Mr. Stallman's. Over the period of three and a half years, I went about $4,000 into debt. Since my salary back in those days was about $15,000 a year, $4,000 was a considerable amount of money!

So I went to Bell Labs from there, and they doubled my salary overnight, and continued to increase it at a fairly brisk rate. I was a Senior Systems Administrator for them, that's where I learned Unix. I eventually had about four real good people reporting to me. I decided to leave Bell Labs because I heard that Digital Equipment Corporation was to be starting their own Unix group and developing their own Unix product, so I decided that was pretty exciting, and I went to Digital, and I've... between Digital and Compaq... I've been there ever since. That's been about 16 years now.

LT: When did you get involved with Linux?

maddog: I didn't even know I was involved with Linux at first. I got a copy of Dr. Dobb's Journal and in there was a advertisement for "get a Unix operating system, all the source code, and run it on your PC." And I think it was $99. And I go, "Oh, Wow, that's pretty cool. For $99, I can do that." So I sent away for it, got the CD. The only trouble was that I didn't have a PC to run it on. So I put it on my Ultrix system, took a look at the man pages, directory structure and stuff, and said, "Hey, that looks pretty cool." Then I put it away in the filing cabinet. That was probably around January of 1994.

Then in May of 1994, I was at a DECUS event, and a friend of mine, Kurt Reisler, was trying to get this guy to come to talk to DECUS about this operating system that he had written. He kept sending mail to various CD-ROM vendors, trying to get them to help fund the trip. They kept sending letters back saying that they'd "like to help, but we're not making that much money, and we really can't afford it, we'd be happy to give you free CDs and stuff to hand out, but we can't do that."

I knew Kurt, he is a great guy, so I went to my management and said, "I don't know who this guy is or anything, but I do know Kurt, I think we should fund this." So my management did, and I went to DECUS, got a PC to put this operating system on. Kurt was having trouble installing the OS, and all of a sudden there was this guy with sandy brown hair, wearing glasses and sandals, said, "Can I help you?" Kurt kind of got this smile on his face and said, "Yeah, I think you could." About 10 minutes later, Linux was working on that PC. They invited me to sit down and take a test ride. I sat down and logged in.

By that time I had been using Unix for probably about 15 years. I had used System V, I had used Berkeley, and all sorts of stuff, and this really felt like Unix. You know... I mean, it's kind of like a piano player, playing the piano. You can play the piano, even if it's a crappy piano. But when it's a really good piano, your fingers just fly over the keys. That's the way this felt. It felt good, and I was really impressed.

So, I talked with Linus, and after DECUS was over, I took him out on the Mississippi River, went up and down the Mississippi in the river boat, drinking Hurricanes, and I said to him, "Linus, did you ever think about porting Linux to a 64-bit processor, like the Alpha?" He said, "Well, I thought about doing that, but the Helsinki office has been having problems getting me a system, so I guess I'll have to do the PowerPC instead."

I knew that was the wrong answer, so I came back to Digital (at the time), and got a friend of mine, named Bill Jackson, to send out a system to Linus, and he received it about a couple weeks after that. Then I found some people inside of Digital who were also thinking about porting Linux to an Alpha. I got the two groups together, and after that, we started on the Alpha Linux project.

So that's basically how I got involved with Linux. In fact, after I was involved with Linux for a little while, I went back to my filing cabinet, hauled out that CD, and sure enough, it was an Yggdrasil CD that I had bought.

LT: At some point, you got involved with Linux International. Can you tell me what Linux International is, how did you get involved with it, and what is your role with Linux International today?

maddog: Well, Linux International is a vendor organization. I know a lot of people who have been confused about that and think that we are a user group, but we try to concentrate on vendor issues, things like portability of applications, and binary interfaces, and that the same application runs across all platforms.

When the issue came up about the trademark and the guy trying to capture the trademark, we raised the money for the lawyer to defend that. Then we went ahead to try to get the trademark trade-marked in all the other countries. We're keeping those for the Linux community.

This isn't to keep people from using the word Linux, as long as they have a legitimate reason, and use the word Linux for free. It is to make sure that the word "Linux" is there for people to use when they want to.

We also do things like set up events at trade shows, help to organize Linux pavilions. We talk to the press to try to give them an even-handed version of Linux, you know, what Linux is and how it works.

From time to time, we sponsor events. For example, the ALS show. We helped to sponsor it the second year that they had it. That was the year that it went from basically a couple people getting together to having 500 attendees and 43 vendors. The year after that it was 2,000 attendees and 60 vendors. We lent them some money up front. We gave them some guidance on how to do it (how to put together a show), and they did all the work. That's the type of thing LI likes to do.

We also help Vendors new to Linux, who have no idea how to reach the Linux marketplace. They have questions about the GPL, all those types of things. We try to help them out.

We also manage the Linux International General Developers Fund, which is money which is used for Linux projects. We have a technical team that reviews the projects that are submitted to us and see if they are worth funding. They determine what the funding level should be, and then we write the check. Any money contributed to this fund goes directly out the other side to some type of project. There's no overhead, we don't try to grab any of the money for funding the general part of the LI program. It's strictly a dollar in, a dollar out type of thing. So, those are the types of things we do. We try to help user groups find speakers, as well.

LT: How did you become involved with Linux International?

maddog: I became involved with Linux International because some of the existing vendors in Linux International told me about it. As Compaq, it made sense that we should join. The membership fee was not that high and it gave us some good contact with some of the people in the Linux community. So we joined.

And after we had joined for a while, Alan Fedder, who had been the Executive Director of Linux International, decided that the load was way too much for him, and he decided to step down. The rest of the vendors looked around and said, basically, "Who do we know who is crazy enough to take this job and would be neutral enough that they would represent us all equally." And they picked me. I've tried to live up to that honor.

As a matter of fact, when Sun came on board and wanted to join, I spent about two days talking with Dave Andrew, who is the Sun rep... telling him about Linux and what types of things they should do, how I viewed the market, etc. I did the same thing with SGI. IBM never asked me, but if they had, I would have done the same thing with them. When it comes to Linux International, even though I am a competitor with these people in other ways, I take my neutrality very seriously.

That's basically how it happened. I guess that's been about three years ago, now. (chuckling) I will admit that I can see why Alan Fedder gave it up... because the pace is somewhat killing.

LT: In addition to that, you also have a lot of things that you do outside of your regular duties with Linux International. That's things like advocacy stuff where you attend trade shows, give presentations to user groups, you probably do visits to large companies to help them move into the Linux community?

maddog: Yeah, well, in a lot of ways, that's part of the Linux International thing. It's not necessarily the administrative part. I do the administrative part, too. I just got finished doing our taxes (that was a thrill). But, you know, I mean, giving talks, talking to companies, doing advocacy is part of the job of the Executive Director.

I think the things which are outside the Executive Directorship, which I do, are things like, I'm the chairman of our local Linux Users Group (the Greater New Hampshire Linux Users Group). Fortunately, there's enough good people there that when I show up 15 minutes late for a meeting, they've already started and going great-guns.

I am also the author of Linux for Dummies, an IDG book. The reason I wrote that was because I wanted to see at least one book out there that I felt had a low enough level that even an MS-DOS user might be able to learn Linux.

I keep myself busy. I like making beer. I like drinking beer. Particularly with friends.

LT: I know that you spend an incredible amount of time traveling. Can you estimate how many days out of the 365 days in a year that you are actually outside of the state of New Hampshire.

maddog: This year it's probably going to be close to 50% because Linux is so hot, that I would easily be on the roald 50% of the time, or more. During the month of March, I was gone for almost the entire month. Between LinuxWorld -- I left LinuxWorld; I went to Singapore; then I went to Hong Kong. And then I was back at my house for only about eight or nine hours before I had to leave for Germany for CeBIT.

LT: Hmmm. Amazing.

maddog: That was a little longer than the average trip... I was very glad to get back to my house. There's going to be quite a bit of that this year. I'm planning to make two trips to Australia. One for a Linux conference, and one for the Australia Unix Users Group. It's because of that that I'm going to miss the first Linux-Kongress in three years that I've missed.

LT: The one in Germany?

maddog: Yeah.

LT: That's unfortunate because you'll miss out on all the great beer over there.

maddog: Yeah, and it is great beer, too. Two years ago in Wurzburg, Germany, it was just fabulous because it was right in the middle of Wine Country in Bavaria. So you were stuck with this really horrible problem of... do you drink really great beer or do you drink really great wine? So I decided to compromise by having beer during lunch and wine during dinner.

LT: These different speaking presentations that you give... People are contacting you, asking for you to come and present, or do you actually go out looking for opportunities to speak?

maddog: Most of the time people contact me. I really don't have to go out and look for them. The other thing is I really like trying to give new topics to people. One of my talks which is called, "The Ten Reasons Why People Don't Want to Use Linux" -- that one I've given a couple times because it's pretty popular. But most of the time when I go some place, I try to develop a completely new talk, and that, of course, takes time also. It takes a little bit of imagination to come up with some topics.

LT: How many different countries have you given presentations in?

maddog: Uh....

LT: A hundred?

maddog: Uh, a hundred is probably a bit high. Probably more like 20 or 25 different countries. Some countries I've been back to several times. For example, I've been to Hong Kong four times, Australia three or four times, even before these next two trips. Japan I've been to several times.

LT: China?

maddog: China. I was only there one time. I would like to go back to China because it's a very interesting country. It's very large, of course. I think that there would be a very good market for Linux in China.

I take a look at these people that talk about software piracy in China and some of the emerging countries in Asia. If they really understood these people made on the order of a dollar or two dollars a day, they'd understand why they can't pay four or five hundred dollars for a copy of some office product.

I think Linux gives them a lot of capabilities that they can work with that allows them to maintain their own systems, which is very important to them.

In fact, I just received a letter from some people in Cuba who have put together a whole medical system of... I think it was like 20 different Linux servers and something like 1,200 medical people using them.They said, "Hey, Linux was the way we could do this because we don't have much money, our financial situation is really bad. But with Free Software, we can build things and maintain things."

So, I'd like to spend some real time in China and talk to some of the people, and get them thinking more about using Linux.

LT: You feel the same way about Russia?

maddog: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I think in January of 1995 I went to Russia. I saw that Linux was already there. There were Trans-Ameritek CD's, Yggdrasil CDs, the Linux Journal was there, I actually have a picture of the Linux Journal at the Moscow Unix Expo.

Absolutely, they know about Linux, and again, they've got not much money. They are in a financial crisis, and with Linux they can legally use the software for free.

These people have pride. They know what stealing is, and they don't like doing it. Their situation is really bad. They see these little plastic CDs and they know only cost a dollar to stamp out, yet somebody is charging like 500 or 600 dollars for them. It's pretty hard to swallow that.

LT: Why is it that you care so much about Linux?

maddog: Computer science has been very good to me over the past 30 years. I've learned a lot from it, I've had a lot of good times. One of the things that really bothered me was seeing the trend that, if you take it to the extreme, means that anything that has anything to do with computer science has to be filtered through Redmond, Washington. I have more than a slight problem with that. I think there's still some really big problems out there that have to be solved, and I think that I'd like to have all the people on the planet, as much as possible, working to solve those problems.

I don't want to have to miss out on the next Albert Einstein of Computer Science. They may come from Brazil, they may come from China, or Korea, or Japan, or, with tongue-in-cheek, I'll say, "Even as unlikely a place as Helsinki, Finland." I just don't want to miss out on finding that person. My feeling is that, if there was only one operating system and it was maintained and controlled by a company, that company would not necessarily have computer science move forward at the pace it normally could.

So that's one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about Linux. The other thing is that it's just a rush to be able to go up to somebody and say, "Hey, here's an operating system with all the source code. Take it. It's free!".

There was a guy in CeBIT. He came up to me and said, "My partner installed Linux on one of our systems. I need to find the person to pay the royalty to." I said, "No, you don't understand, it's okay, it's free."

And he just said, "It's free??" I said, "It's free." And we just went back and forth like two or three times. "It's free?" "Yes, it's free!" Finally, he couldn't believe it. He just walked away shaking his head.

The other people that are great are the venture capitalists who want to find "The Linux company", because they want to invest in Linux. And you have to tell them, "There is no Linux company. There's distributors and stuff, they make distributions, but there is no Linux company." And they just can't believe it. They say, "There's got to be some Linux company..."

LT: What do you see about the future of Linux? We're starting to see smaller computers and bigger computers. Are we going to see super computers and tiny computers that are being served from the big ones? Where do you see the future of Linux?

maddog: My own personal feeling on this is a combination of the information appliance that people have talked about where you plug something into the wall and get information from it. The wall is basically the Internet; the place where you're getting the information from is some huge machine that can search data, store data, manipulate data. You may be paying for this data at the rate of a tenth of a cent per megabyte, some ridiculously low figure.

But, I see computers getting smaller. I'm really interested in what most people call the "Wearable Computers" project, I call it "Ubiquitous Computing", the fact that it's always on, it's always in front of you, it's always there. Can we really learn to use a computer in the way that we've used other mechanical devices like glasses, telescope, microscope, the hearing aid, to enhance our capabilities.

At the other end, can we build a machine big enough and reliable enough that basically you can allow this thing to enhance your entire life. Not run your life, per se, but enhance it.

LT: Maybe as a sort of a personal aid?

maddog: The example I like to give is that you're going along and you try to think of something.

And you mumble to yourself, and the thing hears what you're mumbling and says, "Oh, well, you know, last week you knew this person. Is this the person you're trying to remember?" "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it."

Or, in my case, I've been wearing glasses my whole life. How nice it would be if those glasses were actually a CRT screen and I have a little camera that looked out. The camera could use infrared or a telephoto lens to bring things closer, or a microscopic lens to blow things up. I can control all that. So, in effect, I'd be like Superman. I could see in the dark, I could see through rain, I could see through fog. (chuckles) Those types of things, ubiquitous computing, they're always on.

LT: That would be really neat.

maddog: I think so, too. You know, even have computer enhanced sound. You remove the background noises if you're trying to listen to music, because you just want to hear the music. You don't want to hear the typing or anything like that. You know, you should always be able to turn this stuff off, but to be able to turn it on might be nice, too.

LT: Do you see any problems that might arise as Linux continues, and anything that could hamper the development of Linux?

maddog: Oh, there's thousands of problems. The thing is, so far the Linux community has been able to recognize and take at least some steps to fixing them.

One is the issue of binary compatibility across hardware platforms. Can an application run on one distribution, and you'd be guaranteed it would run on the rest of them? There's always the concept that some large company will come in and try to mess up the whole thing, completely. But, again, the Linux community has been able to side-step some of that stuff. I have hopes that it will continue to side-step.

LT: How do you feel about the terms Open Source and Free Software?

maddog: I think that each of them have their place. Open Source, to me, is the fact that you expose the source code. You can still have an Open Source model, even though you're charging for the code. The benefits to the customer would be that the customer could fix their own problems if they absolutely had to, when they needed them fixed. The customer could enhance their own application to be exactly what they want it to be. So, you could have Open Source code from that viewpoint.

Then Free Software... Hey, that's great, too! I would admit that, you know, from my feeling, the Free Software should be up to the compiler level or the library level and stuff, and I don't necessarily care that all software on Earth be free. I think that the operating system has to be free and that the libraries have to be free, and that type of stuff.

Above that, if you want to have a binary database, hey, fine. I don't care. If you want to have an application you charge money for, fine. But then, somebody else would come along and build one that would be cheaper and do the same thing.

I think the problem in the past has been the operating system. In order to build up the level of applications that the industry really needs, you really need one set of interfaces to the operating system. Not having the operating system freely available would cause problems, I think.

To wrap up this question, Open Source -- I take a look at it and say, "Hey, that's great, the source code is open, you can take a look at it, see how it works, you can change it, you can fix bugs."

Free Software is Free Software. There's free as in "doesn't cost any money" and there is free where "well, you can change it, whatever", which kind of brings us back to Open Source.

My feeling is that, yes, when we first came out with these, the argument was that we needed another term because "Free Software" has baggage with it. Well, quite frankly I think by this time the term "Open Source" has almost as much baggage.

LT: With regard to the relationship between Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond, what kind of impact do you think these conflicts will have on the Linux community? Do you see a resolution in sight anytime soon?

maddog: I have never seen two people who probably have so much in common have so much of a fight. I just think it's a real shame. I don't really want to comment on it any more than that.

LT: What do you do outside of spending your life advocating Linux?

maddog: (Laughs) Not much! I go over to friends' houses. I have some very good friends, various groups of friends, and I go over to their house. That's about really all I have time for. I don't really have as much time as I used to for playing with my computers. I like taking pictures. I like riding along in the jeep with the top down. But mostly, I like being with people, I really do. I really like being with good friends and just kicking back a little bit, talking about stuff, and having a beer or something. That's what I really enjoy. I've met so many really great Linux people. It's like meeting a whole new flock of friends, we have something immediately in common.

LT: Thanks. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

maddog: Hey, Wolf, you're a good friend, I'm looking forward to seeing you at the Expo, and again in Dallas. Take it easy.