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The Watchdog

Jon "Maddog" Hall is the guy that companies like IBM and HP go to when they want to find out how to do the right thing by the Linux community. Hey, with a name like Maddog, they sure don't want to get on his bad side...








Maddog Hall/Opener
PHOTOS © STEVE WILSON

Maddog Hall loves computers that work well. This is what prompted him to pay $99 in response to an advertisement in Dr. Dobb’s Journal back in 1994 and install his first copy of Linux — an experience he likens to playing a really fine piano. Since then, the former Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) marketing manager has emerged as the conscience of Linux. His work as executive director of Linux International (essentially the volunteer-run marketing arm of Linux) has made him an important figure in the Linux community.

Though VA Linux Systems provides his paycheck, Maddog says his days, and most of his weekends, are spent working for LI. Maddog took some time off from LI booth duty at a recent LinuxWorld Expo to meet with Linux Magazine Publisher Adam Goodman, Executive Editor Robert McMillan, and Reviews Editor Lou Grinzo.

LinuxMagazine:One of your jobs at Linux International is to act as a watchdog for potential threats to Linux. What dangers are you focused most closely on right now?

Maddog: Right now I am very concerned about some of the larger companies who are coming into the Linux space. Their upper management kind of understands Linux — maybe they have one or two managers who really understand it — but, it hasn’t quite trickled down through the entire organization.

These companies are moving people off of projects where they have been developing proprietary stuff and now poof they are on the Linux side of the house. These people have not absorbed the Linux culture. They don’t understand the way that Linux people do things. They say “Well, we need to have this particular feature for our customers and we’re going to get it into Linux come hell or high water.” Pardon me, pardon me. It’s not your operating system. It’s the Linux community’s operating system. Although you feel you need to have this thing in there for your customers, it’s the Linux community that owns this.

These people come along and they say, “Well, you know, what happens if we create our own kernel, our own distribution, and we put in the stuff?” I say “Well, then you’ll fracture the ISV [Independent Software Vendor] base. They’ll say, ‘Okay, we tried Linux but it’s obviously screwed up, it’s going to go the way that Unix went and we’re going back to NT.’ That’s something you just can’t tolerate.”

LM: So what is the antidote for this? Education?

Maddog: Well, there’s a couple of antidotes. I mean, education is definitely one of them. So what I’ll do is I’ll go to the management of these companies and say, look, you know this is what I see and I want you to work particularly hard with your employees and get them to understand.

Let’s choose journaling filesystems as an example. There are four or five different companies that have general filesystem technology that they’d like to donate. Well, gang, why don’t you all come together and amongst yourselves, make the decision as to which one is going to go in? If it wasn’t your technology, you know, grin and bear it. Take the defeat gracefully. It doesn’t make sense to have five different journaled filesystems in Linux. So, it’s a little bit of the culture that they have to understand.

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LM: Do you have an example of a company from outside the Linux community that actually released technology in the way you are describing it, that did the right thing?

Maddog: Adaptec, I think, is a company that did the right thing. They said “All right, we’ve got some device drivers here, we’ll make the code available to the developers.”

I would like to see more up-front agreement and planning of this. I was talking recently with somebody from Corel about printing and they said “Well, you know when we started to look at this we talked with Miguel [de Icaza -- GNOME's lead developer] and we talked with all these other people who are doing printing stuff.” They seemed to have covered their bases for working with the Linux community and that was good. It made me feel better. Before that, I felt like they were just kind of jamming this functionality down the Linux community’s throat. That is not going to work.

LM: The other thing you’ve been involved with lately is the Linux trademark and protection of that. When did this first come on your radar?

Maddog: Well, it first came on my radar when there was this gentlemen in Boston who had trademarked the term “Linux.” Actually it came on my radar before that. When I first became executive director of LI, I asked the current members at that time if they had ever trademarked the term Linux.

“No, no, no this is open stuff, we don’t want to do that,” they said. I said, “Well, I think you may be walking down a very bad path because sooner or later somebody may try and trademark it.” They said, “Oh no, no, no.” Well, a couple of months later they started to get these letters from this guy saying “I’ve trademarked the term Linux and you’re using it. Please stop…or pay me lots of money.”

So we decided to hire a lawyer, Gerry Davis of Davis & Schroeder. He went to court, basically, to get this guy to either cancel the trademark completely or turn it over to Linus [Torvalds]. At first Linus didn’t want to own the trademark. A lot of people said “Let’s just turn it over,” but then we realized that if you don’t actively have a trademark that’s registered, then later on people can still apply for that trademark, and you have to continually show that it was openly used before. That’s just very painful, plus you really have no control over how it’s used. Someone can have a Linux porno site and there’s nothing anybody can really say about it.

So, we started licensing it out to people and protecting it. Back in those days there was maybe one request a month. Then as things started to pick up with Linux, it got to be more and more evident that there were going to be more and more problems. People wanted to use the term Linux to reserve this huge name space that they were going to cut up later on and sell little blocks to or whatever.

So people come in and say, “I want to be Linux University.” I say, “Well, you’re really Linux University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Find some much smaller name space.” Recently, it’s just gotten so bad that I may be getting 15 or 20 of these requests a day; I just can’t read them, understand them and absorb them and write stuff back. So, we’re forming a nonprofit corporation that Gerry Davis is going to staff with senior-level law students and they will get a request in over the Net. They’ll do a trademark search to find out whether or not a name exists. Then we will license the name out, if it makes sense.

LM: Does it make sense for Linus to be the one who owns the trademark at this point?

Maddog: When we first had this issue there was a question of who should own the trademark. Should it be Linux International? All the members voted “No.” Somebody said, “Well what about Jon Hall, he’s pretty neutral.” All the vendors said “No.” The only thing that they would accept is for Linus Torvalds to hold the trademark.

LM: Why not Linux International?

Maddog: Well, because they were afraid back in those days with a much smaller membership that Linux International might be taken over by a large company. Maybe as we change our charter and find that it’s stable, we’ll revisit the ownership. But, all the people at that time actually trusted Linus, more than they even trusted Linux International, which I think is a wonderful statement for Linus.

LM: Well the trademark is one area to watch. What about the license? Do you think that the GPL (GNU General Public License) will ever go to court in the United States?

Maddog: Well, “ever” is a long, long time. I think that probably someday there will be somebody who will be stupid enough to try to violate the GPL; and, you know, I think that if they very strongly violate it there will be some people who will try and take them to court. Will it stand up in court? I have no idea. I don’t see anything in it that would not allow it to stand up, but then again I’m not a lawyer.

LM: I’m sure you’ve talked to lawyers about this very issue.

Maddog: Yeah, and a lot of them just kind of shake their head and say, “I’m glad I’m not trying to either defend it or attack it.”

LM: Okay, There’s a very important question I have to ask you. Where did the name “Maddog” come from?

Maddog: Underneath this placid surface, there is a seething personality that every once in a while will make its way to the surface. When I was a lot younger, it surfaced a lot more often than it does now. I really had very little control over it.

Before I worked at Digital, I was teaching at Hartford State Technical College in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a two-year technical college and after two years the kids typically had the same computer science education as somebody coming out of a four-year university.

One year when I turned in my final course grades, about three-quarters of the students in one particular class had not studied and were, therefore, not going to pass. So the dean came down to my office and we started talking about kids, bell curves, and stuff like that. And the argument got hotter and hotter until finally, the dean said to me, “You’re fired.”

We’d had a 250 percent turnover of faculty that year. We had started off the year with a full faculty, all of whom quit except me before the midterm. We hired a whole new group, and all of them quit before we were two-thirds of the way through. I was the only one giving continuity to the entire thing. There were some days where I was teaching five courses a day just to keep the school going.

Later that afternoon, after I’d handed in my keys, the dean said, “No, no, you misunderstood. I didn’t really fire you.” I said “Well, you said those magic words: ‘You’re fired.’ I’ve heard it before: fired. I know what that means: fired.” So, he began following me down the hall, holding onto the keys I’d handed in saying, “Please take them back! Please take them back!” Finally, I took them back.

Right after that my students started calling me Maddog because the conversation that day was too hot for Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Since the dean was British, I was the Mad Dog.

LM: When did you first meet Linus?

Maddog: In April or so of 1994 we were preparing to go to this DECUS [Digital Equipment Corporation Users Society] event. This guy named Kurt Reisler was the chairman of the Special Interest Group for Unix. He wanted to have this guy [Linus Torvalds] come over from Europe to talk about some operating system he wrote.

So, he would send off e-mail messages to the companies that were sending out Linux CDs and said, “Gee, would you help us fund this guy to come over and talk about this operating system?” They would send messages back and say, “We’re sorry, but we’re really small and we don’t have very much money.”

Every time Kurt would send a letter out he’d copy me on it. I began to feel sorry for Kurt because he was a great guy, and he had very good ideas.

So, I went to my management and I said, “I really don’t know who this guy is or really what he did, but Kurt is a great guy and he has good ideas, so I think we should fund him.” Well, my management went to their management and they said, “We really don’t know what this guy did or who he is and we really don’t know who Kurt is, but we know Maddog and sometimes he has good ideas and so we think we should fund this.” So we got $5,000 worth of funding to fly this guy in and put him up in a hotel at DECUS in New Orleans.

So we went there and Kurt brought a PC to install this operating system on. He was trying to install this operating system off of a CD, and after a while this young guy came along with glasses and sandy brown hair and said, “Can I help you?”

Kurt kind of smiled at him and said, “Yes I think you can.” About 10 minutes later Linux was up and running on his PC. That was the first time that Linus had ever installed Linux off of a CD because his system at home did not have a CD-ROM drive.

So, I started talking more with this guy, Linus. Linus was supposed to give two talks that time. We had gotten 40 people to show up for his talks, which we thought was great. Poor Linus was so nervous because this was the first time he had ever given a talk in English to an English-speaking audience. You could tell by looking at him that he was worried about speaking in public. He gave his talk and everything was great.

After the DECUS event, I took him out on a river boat and while we were walking around on the deck and I said to him, “Linus, you know that’s a pretty nice little operating system you have there but there are a lot of Intelisms in it. Have you ever thought about porting it to a 64-bit processor?”

He said, “Yes, yes, I thought about that, but the Helsinki office of Digital has been having problems getting me an Alpha system, so I may have to do the PowerPC instead.” I dropped my Hurricane drink on the bow of the boat, and I said “No, don’t do that, don’t do anything rash. I’ll get you a system.” I don’t remember doing that, but people say I did.

We shipped it off to Helsinki and it arrived at the Digital office and they made sure it still worked and everything, and they gave it to Linus. Two weeks after that system arrived, IBM sent him a PowerPC. But he already had the Alpha, so he never bothered to turn the PowerPC on. Every once in a while someone from IBM would call him up and say, “How is the PowerPC?”

“Well, I haven’t really turned it on.”

A couple of years later he actually turned it on, just so he could say he had turned it on.

LM: A very Linus thing to do. I’d like to ask one last question: What is your goal for Linux?

Maddog: World domination.

Actually that’s not true because I think in reality if you only had Linux it would be almost as bad as only having NT. It’s not quite as bad, because it is open source and people can work on it and improve it and stuff like that, but I really believe that you need to have competition.

I really have no problem with Microsoft having a huge share of the market or even a small share of the market, but I do care about a certain number of things.

First, you can’t have all of computer science being filtered through Redmond. Second, you have to have competition. Just so that companies can’t say, “We can put this out there because there is no alternative.” It has to be good.



Robert McMillan is executive editor for Linux Magazine. He can be reached at bob@linux-mag.com.

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