Q&A: Jon maddog Hall

We speak to the free software champion about where he thinks the industry is headed.

So, there was a 64-bit version of Linux in 1995, yet Microsoft didn't have 64-bit until Vista until 11 years later.

Are you surprised at the rise of Linux and free software in general?

I gave a presentation within Digital and my last slide said Linux was inevitable and that Ultrix would be obsolete. The managers fell about laughing. So, no, I'm not surprised by the rise of Linux but I am surprised at the speed that it's happened.

I interviewed a programmer who didn't know what a cache was.

How is free software going to fit within the enterprise?

When I was at Digital, I remember going to a very large healthcare company, that didn't use UNIX. I asked a manager about this and he got very angry, saying that the company was a professional audience and needed to use professional software.

When he left, I asked one of the engineers and he confessed that the company had been using Linux - without the manager's knowledge. He'd been asked to set up an NT server but couldn't get it to work the manager sees the server working but thinks it's running NT. "We'll tell him in 10 months," says the engineer.

Do you see any parallel with the rise in cloud computing and the rise in free software? They both have a disruptive effect on the industry and both have been propounded by some diehard evangelists.

You can draw some comparisons with cloud. If you're a small business or just starting out, then cloud would make sense. Gmail is perfect for these companies.

There are different sorts of cloud services and everyone lumps them together. I'm very much in favour of private cloud and virtualisation -  but licence management is enough to drive people crazy.

That's why free software is easier. There's a simple rule; if you change it then you have to make it available. A lot of people talk as if free software is completely gratis not even a mother's love is completely free.  It's a trade-off between the royalties on the licence and the need to pay maintenance.

Will free software make real headway inside the enterprise?

Microsoft published an independent survey that showed that, over five years, the cost of free software is more than proprietary software, by the time the cost of support had been built in.

I'd say two things to that: firstly if there's such a shortage of people with free software expertise, then these people need a higher salary. But I'd also ask what happens after six years? With proprietary software, you have to refresh the licence, whereas after the sixth year, free software is indeed free. You need to look at return on investment not total cost of ownership.

Microsoft is going through a process of change right now - shifting everyone from XP to Windows 7/8. It will be issuing no new fixes for XP. That's decision time for companies. Are they going to stick with Microsoft?

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