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The future is… Linux televisions

February 20, 2004 — 14:55 GMT (06:55 PST)

Summary: Opera board member John Patrick explains why Microsoft’s domination of the browser market won’t last forever and how Linux will continue to evolve

By Munir Kotadia | ZDNet UK
Topic: Networking

John Patrick spent 35 years at IBM and was one of the original Internet and Linux enthusiasts. During that time, he was part of the team that started the company’s leasing business, launched IBM’s ThinkPad brand and was credited with introducing IBM to a new communications technology called the Internet. He was also a founding member of the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT in 1994 and a senior member of standards body the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

In late January, Patrick joined the board at Norwegian Web browser company Opera – which is planning an IPO in March. He spoke to ZDNet UK about Microsoft’s domination of the browser market, the SCO law-suit and a future with Linux television sets.

Browsers went through many years of rapid development, but browsing technology hasn’t really changed that much recently. How do you see the browser developing?

There has to be more choice. People see that there is only one browser and you have to take it on Microsoft’s terms; period; end of story. I’m not sure that is what people really want and it is certainly not what I want as a user.

When I first got involved with the Web 10 years ago, there were a lot of browsers to choose from. Each had their own features and functions and there was very active competition among them. What happened next is extremely well documented.

The browser has been taken for granted for much too long but I am quite optimistic about the possibilities of browsers getting better and better. Of course I am not just talking about PCs, which is the really big deal — there are many more Internet devices then there are PCs and all of them need a browser, so there is room for innovation — and that is what Opera is trying to do.

How long can Microsoft dominate the browser market?

If you talk about the browser market, what are you talking about? If you are talking about PCs, then you look at it and ask why would anyone try to compete with a monopoly that has 95 percent or whatever percentage they have? But if you look at the market for Internet devices with browsers on them, then you include televisions, PDAs phones automobiles and virtually any kind of device that has a chip on it and a network connection — and I think we can all see that just about every device will have Wi-Fi and a processor.

With those two ingredients everything becomes a computer on the Web and then Microsoft doesn’t dominate on that market. The big shift is in devices — we are talking about billions of them, which structures the market in quite a different way, and I don’t see Microsoft dominating that larger market.

There is no reason that we have to have a concentration of power in this area because it is quite different to the PC. The PC evolved as it did for a number of reasons. You can look back at things that Microsoft, IBM and Apple did and construct how we got where we are today. But in the pervasive space it is quite different and we are at the very beginning.

But Microsoft has a way of taking control of markets. Why do you say they can’t dominate the mobile-browser market?

When you look back, before Windows there was DOS and there are a lot of books written about what they did and whether it was right or not, but you can explain how we got to where we are. In the pervasive market it is quite a different story, because this market is not growing from a point where Microsoft already dominates.

It is still a very small market and Opera is a very big player. They are growing very nicely and [have] just announced that they are going public. This space is not like Linux moving into the desktop market and trying to compete — which it is beginning to do and make progress — but it is an uphill battle.

Microsoft is a very powerful company that has a lot of resources, a lot of very smart people and they have also done a lot of good things; so it would be foolhardy to suggest that they will not continue to be important, but that doesn’t mean that they will be dominant.

Clearly they are dominant in some markets today, but if you had said five years go that Linux would be operating in the heart of major financial institutions around the world and the leaders of China, Germany and Brazil would suggest that their people use Linux on the desktop, people may not have believed you.

So when there are billions of devices with Web access, how will this affect privacy?

Privacy will continue to be an area needing a lot of focus both from the user side and from vendors. It has to go very deep into the infrastructure and is not just a matter of a feature in the browser; it is a matter of the middleware that operates in the telephone companies, banks and insurance companies of the world.

Most organisations today have a privacy policy but when you ask them how they enforce it, it is quite a different question. That is going to become much more important with the pervasive computing devices spreading like they are.

These are solvable problems but they are not going to be solved by one company and one place controlling everything. That is not the way to solve a pervasive set of issues. In my opinion, the only way to address this is to have a competitive market where you have multiple vendors competing for features and function, privacy and security capabilities and an active community around those alternatives — it has to be decentralised.

So if Microsoft will not dominate the overall browser market, what about the desktop?

The market will segment. There are some people that like to have a large flat panel on their desk — I have two. Email goes into one and my blogging tools are on the other. For someone working in graphics or writing or media, that is the environment they are going to use; they are not going to use a handheld to edit movies.

So although we will see a very large segment, possibly billions of people, who will only use a handheld, it doesn’t mean the market for PCs is going to go down. Remember there are only about half a billion people on the Internet right now out of seven billion people. How many of them are active? As a percentage of the world’s population, it is a small number.

The market for desktop PCs and laptops will continue to grow, but there also will be an emerging market for things we hold in our hand and put in our pocket that will become very large — larger than the desktop market.

Internet security is a huge issue and Microsoft often comes under criticism for its security issues, but is the company doing enough to safeguard Web users?

Security on the Web is far better than it used to be. But the number of people interested in disrupting things is also larger, so increased diligence is required by both vendors and users.

We all know that security should be receiving more attention then it has. In the past, Microsoft’s priority was clearly to get features and functions in the market and worry about security later. If they are changing that approach, and they say they are, then congratulations to them, they should be

Linux is penetrating servers and starting to be used in desktops in all industries, but how far can it go?

Linux is gaining on the desktop because governments are pushing the idea and I think schools will too, but the powerhouse going on with Linux is in the other extremes — both little and big. On the high end, Linux clusters are being adopted for supercomputing and IBM has been fuelling much of that. In the financial services and most major companies in the world today are at least considering Linux for servers — things like mail servers, infrastructure, utility servers, firewalls. But they are also beginning to deploy them in mission critical activities because they are finding that there are skills out there.

At the other end, you have Linux in a wristwatch and in telephones. There is no doubt in my mind that we will have Linux televisions too. Look at the Tivo, which is a Linux computer.

This is like Java was ten years ago. There were a lot of sceptics and I used to say if you are sceptical, talk to kids. Go to universities and ask them what they think of Java and they would say, ‘what are you talking about, of course we are writing code in Java’. This is what is happening with Linux now. Linux is going to be pervasive and that’s why I am optimistic about Opera because it has a very nice Linux browser.

Why is Linux so popular? Is it because it is free?

There is a perception that Linux is about “free”, but my belief is that Linux is about “freedom”.

It is not about free because it is not free, no software is free. There are implicit costs involved in using any software. The issue is about freedom — for people to make the choices they want to make, to have the partnerships they want with other vendors and not have to spend so many resources tracking licences.

I met with a school district recently and the teachers were telling me that one of their biggest challenges is maintaining this binder full of all the licence agreements they have with Microsoft. They feel inhibited doing anything new because they are afraid Microsoft’s lawyers will be calling them.

Freedom is very empowering. I am using Windows on one machine and Linux on the other and I use Open Office on both of them — without any compatibility problems. Ximian evolution is excellent and it has some features that Outlook does not have. When you use it you feel the freedom.

There is a dark cloud hanging over Linux in the form of a SCO law suite. How much does this worry you?

Nothing can stop a grass roots initiative such as Linux. It would be like somebody saying we are going to stop the Internet. I can’t imagine any judge saying, ‘yes, I think we should consider that’ — it is not on the cards.

I read the same things everybody else does about this particular suit, but I rise above that and say, can I envision any scenario that would stop Linux, and I can’t. It is that simple from my perspective.

About Munir Kotadia
Munir first became involved with online publishing in 1998 when he joined ZDNet UK and later moved into print publishing as Chief Reporter for IT Week, part of ZDNet UK, a weekly trade newspaper targeted at Enterprise IT managers. He later moved back into online publishing as Senior News Reporter for ZDNet UK.

Munir was recognised as Australia’s Best Technology Columnist at the 5th Annual Sun Microsystems IT Journalism Awards 2007. In the previous year he was named Best News Journalist at the Consensus IT Writers Awards.

He no longer uses his Commodore 64.