Richard Seibt once had the unenviable task of managing IBM's OS/2 business in an ultimately
losing battle against Microsoft for the hearts and minds of computer users.
Through one of history's quirks, Seibt again finds himself in a mano-a-mano struggle against
Windows--but this time he heads SuSE, a company whose operating system is causing major headaches
for the folks up in Redmond.
In late spring, SuSE was selected by the city of Munich in a much-publicized and
rare defeat for Microsoft, which actually came in with a lower bid. Whether Munich was a harbinger
or a one-off example of the vagaries of IT decision making, it was seized upon by open-source proponents as a big victory for their side.
Seibt, who still remembers the bruises from his first tangle with Microsoft, is hardly ready
to declare victory. Still, he does see clear momentum building around Linux--despite the turmoil in the open-source community triggered by the SCO-IBM lawsuit.
After a long career at Big Blue, where among other things he was managing director of IBM
Germany, Seibt joined SuSE in January. He recently sat down for a roundtable discussion
with CNET News.com's Editorial Board to talk about the future of open-source software and his
plans for expanding the company's profile in the United States.
Q: You recently beat out Microsoft for a big deal
with the city of Munich--even though Steve
Ballmer went out of his way to make a personal
appearance and reportedly was willing to underprice the Linux bid.
A: That's absolutely right. When a consultant's
recommendations came up with an evaluation that
the city should go for Linux, that was when Steve
Ballmer decided to fly from Switzerland to Munich.
He went to the mayor and said they would do
whatever it takes.
Do you think national politics at all played a
part in the decision to go with a German open-source software company?
I met the politicians from both parties and I was
surprised at how well informed they have been
about open source and Linux...At the end of the
day, they had the same opinion: Let's go for open
source. So I don't think there was a lot of politics.
But the fact you are a German company didn't
hurt your chances.
Actually, I'd say it was the other way around. It was
the fact that they have been treated by Microsoft not
as they had expected over the years. It was more
about that than that we were a German company.
It is very important that the city of Munich decided
to change from Microsoft to Linux. Even more
important was that Ballmer decided to fight that
fight--that was probably the biggest mistake he
could ever make. I like history and what famous
people said. It was Gandhi who said, "First they
ignore you, then they laugh at you and then they
fight you--and you win." This is a perfect
description for a disruptive technology where the
market leader has a challenger and they can't cope
As it competes against Linux overseas, do you
think Microsoft's identity as a U.S. corporation will
become a factor? That is, Microsoft is a very visible
extension of American high-tech prowess and that
may not play well in some countries because of
No. Cities, companies--they decide based upon
technology, cost and the service they get. I don't
believe the "Let's buy American or Let's buy
German" attitude plays any role. Microsoft may be
looking for reasons, but look at how well IBM is
doing in Germany. There's no sign that any IT
companies from Germany are going to beat IBM or
anyone else because they are German. I'm sure that's
not the case.
Do you think Linux's acceptance in Europe will
be helped by the European Union's current
investigation into Microsoft?
I don't believe that companies make decisions because
of the EU or other activities like that. They make
decisions based on technology, cost of ownership--things like that.
You have to believe Microsoft is going to do
whatever it can to prevent another Munich. If they
decide to pull out all the stops, how will you be
able to stand up to that kind of competition?
Microsoft has very deep pockets and their monopoly
margin is very high. So whatever they do, if they
make that decision, they can do it--but they'll destroy
their current business model and the share price.
From a customer perspective, the Munich deal has
implications...that (Microsoft) will start to negotiate
on a price point that's 90 percent below their list
price. It's unbelievable. Cutting prices when you
have offered high prices before means that all other
customers will want the same thing too. Their other
reaction will be: "What have I paid before?" And that
causes disappointments, loss of trust and loss of
We haven't talked about the SCO suit and where
SuSE stands. Will you put money into the fund
started by Red Hat to fight the lawsuit or does your
cross-licensing deal with SCO still provide you with
We have a joint-development agreement with SCO...and part of that contract is a cross-licensing
agreement. And our lawyers tell us that we are
But don't you think that if you're really part of
the open-source community that you need to take a
stand about this suit as opposed to saying, "Well, we
have a cross-license so we're okay."
No. We applaud what Red Hat did and we did the
same in Germany some weeks ago. We went to court
together with the Linux association in Germany.
(SCO) is not any more allowed to tell the public or
customers that there's code as part of Linux which is
intellectual property from SCO. If they still do that, they must pay a
fine of 10,000 euros per case.
What do you think of IBM's countersuit? And do
you think the GPL
license is strong enough to bear
the weight of a trial?
I fully believe it's strong enough to succeed...the
case will show that it's strong enough.
Are you at all worried about software patents?
Do you think they pose a problem for the open-source community?
My opinion is we need a GPL. We don't
need software patents.
My opinion is we need a GPL. We don't
need software patents.
If you're going to displace Microsoft on the
desktop, one of the important pieces is an office
suite. Do you think OpenOffice needs to be better?
Are you putting any developer attention on that
I believe the functionality of OpenOffice or Sun
StarOffice doesn't need a lot of changes. I've been
using StarOffice for 10 years and haven't had an
issue. There might be a need for additional work but
I think the open-source community will fix that.
So you don't think SuSE needs to devote any
resources to that? It's good enough?
At this point in time, I don't believe so. On the other
hand, Sun--with Mad Hatter--will make sure that
all the functions that are needed will become
available. Think about the 44,000 employees who
use Sun's StarOffice--and it works.
SuSE technology is at the core of Mad Hatter (A
Sun project to outfit businesses with low-cost PCs running
on Linux software that can be easily configured by IT
administrators.) Do you get payment every time Sun
ships one of those desktops?
We have agreed not to disclose terms of the
You were managing director for IBM in
Germany and one of your jobs was to promote OS/2.
Given that experience--which from an IBM
perspective didn't fare very well against Microsoft--are there parallels to what you're now trying to do
There are some similarities. My people are 100 percent
committed to Linux and open source--and it was
just the same with OS/2. Thinking about the product
from a technology perspective, there is a huge
difference. OS/2 had a different kernel on the client
and server and that caused a lot of problems for the
customer. I believe OS/2 was a new operating system
and Linux is a Unix-based operating system, even
though it's open source. Lots of applications are
easily available and there's a skill set available that
can be used. We also don't have the positioning
issue where OS/2 was positioned as the better
Windows. Linux is a high-end operating system, so
there is the biggest difference between the two.
From the desktop perspective, there are similarities.
We call on customers who may say, "We are using
Microsoft Office." And this was just the same. We can
say there is StarOffice and it's much the same. But
times have changed as well. We are talking about
browser-based architectures. We are talking about
thin clients. And the competition from Microsoft is
Do you think that Sun, IBM and HP are
stringing you along and that at a certain point they
will decide to put out their own Linux distribution?
They do their own service and support, so why
wouldn't they want to eliminate the middleman--or
I don't think that will happen. All of them know the
history (of the Unix market) and what happened. If
HP makes up its own distribution, then IBM will do
the same. And this ends up with endless
distributions and differentiation--and that's what the
industry doesn't want.
But choice means more than the two
alternatives presented by SuSE and Red Hat.
But what does choice mean? For instance, on the
hardware, they wanted to compete from PCs to
servers; they don't see the OS as a differentiator. If
they all made their own distribution, then they'd
have to certify their software, and it adds cost to the
But if they're getting rid of Unix, that would
suggest there's room for more Linux distributions. It's
all open source. It's all transparent.
If you ask them, they will tell you they want to
support two distributions.
Red Hat says the immediate target is the universe
of Unix systems, particularly those running on RISC
processors, while the longer-term target is Windows.
Do you agree or are things different on the other side
of the Atlantic?
We agree. But there are a lot of customers already
making the migration from Windows Server to the
client. Large corporations are thinking that it's time
to change. When I joined SuSE six months ago, I was
100 percent sure we didn't need to focus on the desktop.
But I've changed my mind simply because of
Talking about the competition with Red Hat,
you've said it is a two horse race. If so, how many
noses ahead are they?
Red Hat and SuSE are both fighting an open-source fight. We
both believe we have one enemy--and that's Redmond and nowhere else.
Our heritage is Europe, while their heritage is the
United States. Red Hat went public and got a lot of media
coverage. Because Europe is, from a financial market
perspective, 12 months to 18 months behind the United States, we
missed the IPO. Otherwise, it would be an easier
Will it look the same two years from
I don't believe this will continue.
What's the big difference between you and Red
I think the big difference is coming out of the
technology. There's a common code base, which
means a customer only needs one skill set to deploy
SuSE's enterprise server on all the platforms he
might want to run--from the desktop to the zSeries, or the largest server. The maintenance is
driven by tools like YAST (Yet Another Setup Tool) installation
software. That's a differentiator.
On top of those two things, it comes down to
reliability, performance and stability. This is
something that might vary. Sometimes we're ahead
and sometimes they're ahead. Meta Group gives us a
12 month to 18 month technology advantage. But Red Hat
and SuSE are both fighting an open-source fight. We
both believe we have one enemy--and that's
Redmond and nowhere else. From that perspective,
we are working closer together.
You're strong in Europe, and Red Hat is strong in the
United States. Does that suggest closer collaboration? Maybe
a merger within five years or so?
I don't know what will happen in five years. Today
there's no need because the market is big enough for
the two most important players.