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Q&A: Stuart Cohen, CEO of OSDL

As CEO of the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), Stuart Cohen is leading the Beaverton, Ore.-based group's efforts to propel Linux into new technological and geographical frontiers.

To help move the open source operating system beyond its beachhead in the server arena, OSDL recently initiated an effort to develop an industry-wide specification for a common desktop implementation of Linux.

In the physical world, Cohen recently traveled to Asia to talk to the growing community of Linux supporters and meet with representatives of OSDL's first Chinese member, Beijing Co-Create Open Source Software.

Recently, caught up with Cohen -- a 17-year IBM veteran in a previous life -- to get his take on software development, security, and the recent legal attacks upon Linux.

Q: Legally speaking, is the Linux community on the defensive more than it should be, when perhaps offense might be a more effective strategy?

I think we're playing about as much offense as we care to play . . . The lawsuits are between the SCO Group and Novell, and SCO and IBM. What we have said is, 'Don't hold Linux hostage.' If [copyright holders] think there's code in there that's offending code, show it to us. We'll look at it. If we determine it's offending, then we'll replace the code.

Q: Even if SCO does not prevail, will the open source community become gun-shy? Will there be an impact on the development process?

Absolutely not. If anything, the process that Linus [Torvalds] has deployed for over 10 years is very scientific. It's had a number of enhancements over the years and he will continue to make enhancements going forward.

Q: Does the release of the new 2.6 kernel mark the mainstreaming of Linux?

You could say that the end of 2.4 almost marked it, because of the number of people who are taking web servers, file servers, and print servers and starting to put them into more general business applications. I think you're going to see the major deployments on 2.6, but what's happened in the last 12 months is where it's come from, and that's all 2.4-based.

Q: Is it important to the success of Linux on the desktop that Microsoft eventually does a Linux port of Microsoft Office, or will OpenOffice be sufficient?

OpenOffice and the SuSE desktop and some other offerings available today are very good in getting the process started. Whether it ends up that Microsoft ends up porting Office to run on Linux, or other people provide the right kind of innovation remains to be seen. It would be great to have Microsoft offer Office on Linux. But that's really their decision.

Q: Would you venture a prediction as to whether they will?

I don't know. They're a very smart company. They're well run. As the market share on Linux gets to a certain point, they will listen to their customers and they will pay attention to the marketplace.

Q: You recently went to China. What's happening there?

We have one [new] member, Beijing Co-Create Open Source Software, that's very interested in doing things with Linux. The governments of China, Japan, and Korea have formed a consortium to work on the acceleration of Linux. There are also major [Chinese] vendors like Red Flag and Beijing Test and Software Lab, as well as [U.S. companies] like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Computer Associates, and Intel that are very involved in big deployments of Linux applications in China.

Q: It seems like, near-term, there's more of an upside for Linux in Asia and Europe than domestically.

The PC penetration is so low in China, and there are so many people getting PCs for the first time that the Chinese government and vendors are interested in providing Linux and Linux-based applications. In the non-China portions of Asia, there's a lot of interest by the governments in creating a software industry.

Q: You're talking about Malaysia, Vietnam, and Korea.

Correct. Even Japan would like to become a bigger software provider on the global scale.

Q: Do you expect to see other Chinese companies signing on to OSDL soon?

I would anticipate that there will be a number of Chinese-based companies that will become members of OSDL. We have a number of members that are based in Japan today, such as Fujitsu, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC, and NTT. And [OSDL members] Turbo Linux and Miracle are in both China and Japan.

Q: Given the history of adherence -- or non-adherence -- to intellectual property law in China, do you have confidence that the Chinese companies who embrace Linux are going to remain proper participants in the open source process? Or is there some fear that they may take the technology and go their own way?

No, I think the beauty of open source and the open source development community is, they will participate in the process and they will look to the rest of the world to participate as well.

Q: Has this issue ever explicitly been discussed?

No. They very much want to use, take advantage of, and partner with the rest of the world as it relates to open source activity.

Q: So all these companies are going to fold everything they develop back into the Linux code base?

Yeah. There'd be no reason not to.

Q: Where does India fit into the picture?

I have not been there and I have not focused on them. My perspective is that people use India as an outsourcing location for their own software development, versus local software development created by local Indian companies.

Q: What do you think of Microsoft's 'Get the facts' Web site, which touts the advantages of Windows over Linux?

It's great. They're promoting the fact that Linux is growing. I wish they'd run TV ads.