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Netscape leans on Linux

Cofounder Marc Andreessen explains his company's investment in Red Hat, saying "Linux will be bigger than all Unix combined."

    SAN JOSE, California--Demand for software based on the Linux operating system has mushroomed in the last year and will quickly overtake all other versions of Unix combined, said Netscape Communications cofounder Marc Andreessen in an interview today.

    "Soon Linux will be bigger than all Unix combined. The stage is set for broader-based use," Andreessen predicted after his keynote at the ISPcon trade show, an audience that Andreessen said has been big on the Linux bandwagon.

    That groundswell is molding not only Netscape's product directions but today produced a Netscape investment in Red Hat Software, the market leader for supported Linux. Intel also announced an investment in Red Hat today.

    Andreessen said the Red Hat investment is not meant to slight other Linux vendors but rather as a concrete signal of Netscape's support. "Red Hat is the predominant player, but we don't want to pick sides. Red Hat is the dominant player in Linux, and people need to be assured," he said.

    Red Hat chief executive Robert Young agreed later that strategic aspects of the Netscape-Intel investment are more critical than the cash.

    "This round of financing was primarily a strategic one for Red Hat. The fact that we collected a few dollars is a nice side benefit," Young said, noting that proceeds from the investment will go to a new division focused on enterprise level support of Linux.

    Netscape's support for Linux is not merely financial, Andreessen said, noting that a Linux version of Netscape's browser has existed for some time.

    Next month, Netscape will deliver Linux versions of its hosted email product for ISPs, he said, and other parts of its SuiteSpot server family and its application server will be ported to Linux early next year. Netscape's e-commerce software will be delivered on Linux later next year.

    Andreessen believes Linux will be the first operating system to support Intel's Merced chip, and that Intel's investment in Linux is an important indicator of its strategic direction.

    "Intel has not declared war on Microsoft," he said. Instead, he believes Intel is looking for other operating systems that can exploit the power of Intel's microprocessors.

    "They look for things that use all they are creating, and Linux is more scalable than Windows NT for server hardware," Andreessen said.

    Intel corporate vice president Sean Maloney said today that the chip giant's interest is indeed on the server side.

    "We see the server space moving fast technically in the last two or three years, with lots of two-way and four-way servers," he said. "We've been looking at Linux seriously for 18 to 24 months."

    Maloney promised that Intel will take a hands-off approach to how the Linux community on the Internet functions, but he predicted that the progress of Linux would be relatively slow. Customers don't often change operating systems, he noted, and Microsoft has put enormous resources behind Windows NT.

    "But if Red Hat holds its position in the ISP business, it will be a huge business in three to four year's time," Maloney added.

    John Paul, manager of server products at Netscape, said the firm nine months ago began to discuss what it could do to advance Linux forward--quietly, because it didn't want to spook Netscape's enterprise customers that weren't sold on Linux.

    "No longer am I nervous about talking to enterprise customers about Linux," Paul said, commenting on Linux's progress in recent months.

    Linus Torvalds, who authored the Linux operating system and has remained its guiding spirit, said the importance of Linux to software developers is that Microsoft doesn't control it. He compared its user base to that of Apple's Macintosh operating system.

    Asked whether Microsoft could threaten Linux, Torvalds said: "What can they do? What is the Microsoft threat? They certainly can't program around us. The only other thing they can do is marketing, and sure, let them try."

    Torvalds also predicted software developers will write code to run on Linux.

    "We'll get all the applications we'll need," he said. "It will take time, but in three to five years, we will have all the office suites, games, and databases."

    Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.