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Linux veteran tries again

Ransom Love once turned his back on Linux after founding Caldera. Now he returns to Novell a born-again Linux-phil. Why the switch?

Ransom Love's Linux ideas have come full circle--twice in the space of one month. Love began his Linux career by leaving Novell to help found Linux seller Caldera in 1994. As chief executive officer, he took the company down a path that forsook its Linux business in favor of Unix. But Love left in 2002, before the company renamed itself SCO Group and launched a legal attack on IBM and the open-source operating system.

Nine years after rejecting Love's idea, Novell concluded that it wants to be a Linux company after all, announcing a plan to acquire second-place SuSE Linux for $210 million. And Love himself has returned to the Linux camp, joining the board of directors of Progeny, which sells a customizable operating system product based on the Debian version of Linux.

"It's deja vu," said Love, chuckling over the recent turns of events. Love shared his Linux views in a discussion with CNET News.com.

Q: What was your reaction when you heard that Novell plans to buy SuSE?
A: It's ironic, because Novell had everything when we were there. They could have owned Linux, and they could have pushed (Windows) NT right off the map. But it just wasn't the right time.

I'm pretty excited. Novell has to have a platform, and NetWare isn't it. It's out of gas. It's a has-been. They've done some good application infrastructure, but they need Linux, and Linux needs them. They'll come in and provide some stability and strength there. With SCO causing problems and creating such an unstable environment there, frankly, this has been such a good thing.

Were you surprised when you heard about the acquisition plan?
Yes and no. When we introduced Linux seven or eight years ago, we knew Novell needed Linux. I've actually been wondering why it's taken them so long, but certain things needed to be there. I think that Chris Stone's management team is well entrenched.

You were the founder of Caldera. What's the company's early history?
Myself and Bryan Sparks and Rob Hicks in the legal department got together over lunch, and we created a biz plan. How does Novell--or we as a separate company--compete against Microsoft? We felt that Linux could be the ideal platform.

The management team was against it (except then-Novell CEO Chairman Ray Noorda). We set up a skunk works to develop Linux and higher-level network software. They were really quite threatened by what we had prototyped--all that was running on top of a Linux environment. Then, Bob Frankenberg came in (replacing Noorda in 1994), and all the vice presidents were against what we were doing. Bob decided that we were going to focus on just the browser. It was threatening to the LAN WorkPlace team. They had gone in and convinced management that we just needed the browser. In reality, they just wanted to get our project and kill it.

So you left.
I left. Bryan and I had to re-engineer all the stuff we'd done inside of Novell. We partnered with Red Hat because we wanted to provide a commercial desktop. Novell had everything. They would have had just about everything they needed on top of Linux. That would have been a major deterrent for NT success.

Back then, why would anyone think Linux had a better chance than NetWare?
We were using Linux as a desktop at the same time. It was more stable than Windows NT at the time. And NT as a server was a joke.

But NetWare was so dominant they were almost killed by their own success. NetWare was so successful that they could never move on.

Why did you leave Caldera?
We'd just gone through the acquisition of a major company (the Santa Cruz Operation's Unix business) that was extremely poorly managed. They'd ramped up because they had such success with Y2K, so we had to go right down to the core to salvage the company. At the same time, the economy was going south, and most of our revenue was very much economically tied to companies like KFC and McDonald's. If there's an economic upswing, we prosper, and if it goes down, people don't eat out as much.

When we introduced Linux seven or eight years ago, we knew Novell needed Linux.
We stopped the hemorrhaging, and were able to get the thing profitable. But with all the issues we had to deal with on the board, plus the SCO guys--we had two SCO members on the board--it was tough. There was a lot of tension. We were doing so many changes--plus we were having to keep the people incented, because the stock options were so far under water.

We got through the really hard stuff, but at the end of the battle, you're still covered in blood. To move the company forward, it made a lot of sense. It was a mutual agreement: Let's get somebody new in. Darl (McBride) I knew from my work at Novell.

We knew we had salvaged a wonderful channel. We had great technology on the Unix side, wonderful customers and the UnitedLinux thing done. We'd set the stage to do the next step.

It's so ironic, the turn of events. (Caldera began discussing) what we can do through UnitedLinux to indemnify people who had used both Unix and Linux. Apparently, Darl took that in a little different direction than we intended.

What did you think when SCO filed the lawsuit against IBM?

I lived through the Microsoft suit at Caldera (in which Caldera sued Microsoft over the DOS operating system), and those things take on a life of their own.
I wasn't surprised about the lawsuit against IBM because there were longstanding issues we weren't able to resolve with IBM. But I lived through the Microsoft suit at Caldera (in which Caldera sued Microsoft over the DOS operating system), and those things take on a life of their own. They consume a business. When it first came out my biggest concern--we had done work to get SCO to a position where it was profitable, then they got themselves embroiled in this major lawsuit, and I just knew it was going to go south. That's when we--my wife and I--sold our shares.

Presumably, you think Linux still has a chance, given your new post at Progeny?
Absolutely. I think a lot of this stuff will take its course. For example, I'm almost certain that Novell has existing rights for using Unix products, so they may very well be indemnified. When they sold Unix to SCO, they kept a lot of stuff themselves. That could provide a buffer between SCO and the industry. It'll be fun to watch what happens.

Why did you join the Progeny board?
I'd been away from Linux a little bit and had been watching from the sidelines. I felt like now is a good time--with the Novell purchase. It could be an ideal opportunity to jump back in and see what I can do to help. Progeny is in a pretty interesting position; they have some real opportunities with their relationship with the open-source community, with Debian. It depends on what Novell will do. If they don't try to take a "let's make a whole lot of money off Linux" approach but rather a "Let's make Linux a viable platform," they could provide a whole alternative to Red Hat.

I think where this could work is in the area of standards. It comes back to the Linux Standard Base. Maybe Novell can expand that so it doesn't care what's underneath. As long as applications can install and function, then Linux can truly be a platform.

I think there's enough room in the maturing market for everyone to play. But the key is standards.