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Linux Technology Spotlight: Macmillan Computer Publishing USA

Linux Technology Spotlight: Macmillan Computer Publishing USA

By Matthew Beale
07/27/99 12:00 AM PT

Q Can you tell our readers about the background of your company's involvement with Linux and the open-source movement? A MacMillan has been in what I call the computer book-publishing world since 1983. About 6 or 7 years ago, we formed a group called Macmillan Digital Publishing, and that company was focused on taking a position in the software world, building software products for all types of personal productivity, desktop applications, Palm Pilot add-ons, Office 2000 add-ons, and so on.

From that, we got involved in Linux with a company by the name of Red Hat. About three and a half years ago, we did some book product of what was called 'Linux Unleashed,' or 'Special Edition Using Linux.' We included Red Hat in the back of it. This was before Linux was, of course, really popular. From that we developed a relationship with Bob Young at Red Hat, and we became their publisher of the shrink-wrapped, boxed version that they sell at CompUSA and Best Buy. We've even had it into CostCo and Sam's Club.

That started about two and a half years ago when we came out with Linux 5.0. We moved to 5.1, and then into Linux Basic 5.2, which was our last one. That got us really going into the Linux software marketplace.

Today, Macmillan is not only the number one publisher of Linux book products, with the most revenue as well as units sold, but we're also the number one publisher of Linux software. We have everything from the operating system (OS) to the secure server edition of the operating system to Linux utilities, such as Star Office. We're also the publisher and distributor of Linux games. In fact, we apparently are carrying the products Quake and Quake II that have been ported to Linux.

So, we like to look at ourselves as kind of a very large Linux provider in all types of software applications. That's where we're moving in the future. We've moved probably over 250,000 units of just Linux products alone in just the last year.

Our forte has always been technology. In fact, today we call Macmillan a technology-based products company. We no longer even consider it a book publisher, because over 30% of our revenues today come from something other than books.

Q Can you talk a little bit about your Linux secure server edition? A It's primarily a stand-alone system that we built with Mandrake, and it includes the Apache secure server as part of it, as well as some additional utilities for security. We also include 4 or 5 electronic books to teach you, basically, security in a Linux environment as well as how to set up a secure server, and so on.

In fact, this fall we'll be coming out with a stand-alone Linux security product. Essentially, with most of the Linux environments that we're dealing with today, many of them are used for Internet applications. So, one of the biggest issues with any Internet server is security. This will be all about setting up firewalls, and so on, along with the software to do that -- to set up a secure environment for the Internet.

Q What distinguishes your products from other market offerings? A What really differentiates our product is one; we focus mostly on the actual end-user. What that really means is that we provide actual telephone support for the end-user for the installation process. We provide, hopefully, an easier front-end to load it. That's all about one of the biggest issues right now with Linux.

As well, we provide some additional utilities that you don't get with just a standard operating system. That hopefully will, again, make it easier to use, as well as provide more functionality. The final thing we do is provide at least 3 or 4 very popular Linux reference guides from Macmillan's computer publishing side, in electronic form obviously, to make it easier to learn. We like to think that what differentiates us is just purely the user support aspect of it.

Q In your opinion, what are the most significant factors driving the current Linux market, which seems to be quite popular these days? A I think that Linux has always been a very popular operating system for people that are setting up Internet servers. But I also believe it is a stable environment, which is obviously an important item. And I truly believe that there is a lot of tire-kicking going on right now, because Linux has done a great job of getting a lot of PR.

When you look at the numbers of some of the products we've been selling through, and the advertising we've been doing, of course it's going to generate a lot of interest. 'What's so hot about this?' 'Why are, all of a sudden, these hit games coming out for Linux?' Or 'what are these utilities for Linux, what's the big deal?' And when you can walk into CompUSA and buy the whole operating system for $29 (US$), it's like, 'well, let's give it a try.'

There's one thing I did leave out -- and it's important -- with regard to our operating system, and what we do to help make it unique. We include Partition Magic and Boot Magic with it, which allows you to run it on the same system as you're running windows. This is a big problem for people who just download Linux, or if you buy some of our competitors' Linux versions -- they forget to tell you that you will no longer have Windows on your system when you're done. And that's a big problem with all the people are actually, as I put, tire-kickers right now.

So, our phone lines, of course, have been jammed. We didn't used to do that, but now that we include Partition Magic, it allows you to run both of them in tandem on your computer system. So, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that that's another differentiating factor.

Q What critical challenges exist for Macmillan and other firms in the area of commercial Linux? A I think the biggest challenge is that, 'what are you offering that I can't get for free?' Because obviously you can go out and download all these versions of Linux, ours included, for free. But, when you're dealing with an operating system, putting it on your hard drive is sometimes a difficult aspect. But the real difficult aspect is what you do once it's on there.

I think that our challenge in the future is to continue to build an interface on the front-end that makes it easier and easier to use, as well as the fact that we need to provide more and more software that makes it something that people can use in their everyday work life, or at home, or whatever the case may be. Once software proliferates, obviously the operating system will also.

When you think about Macmillan and the wealth of content we have, from a pure information standpoint, to help Linux users, I feel pretty confident in our future and that we'll be able to continue to push the envelope. I think our next version of Linux, when we come out with it -- without telling you all our secrets -- will tie-in the Internet very closely for a lot of different user support functions.

Q Mindcraft recently released the results of performance tests it ran pitting Linux versus Windows NT. Sam Ockman of Penguin commented that the findings were largely irrelevant for most users and that such issues as reliability, stability, security and expandability are what are most important, and are where Linux dominates. What are your thoughts on Mindcraft's findings? A First of all, Microsoft is a very dominant force in the technology field today. I happen to believe that the Apple operating system has been able to stay alive, even in a Microsoft world. And I believe Linux will be there also. But to say that it's more secure and more stable, I think it depends on what you're trying to run. We run everything at Macmillan in an NT environment and a Linux environment, and it just depends on how you do the configurations, and so on.

So, you have to be careful about any surveys to make sure that it's a fair reference to NT also. We do an awful lot of work with Microsoft, and generate an awful lot of reference content on many of their products also. We're a staunch competitor when it comes to operating systems, since we are obviously a provider of Linux, to count them out I think would be silly.

Q There are signs of Microsoft's seriousness about a sort of shootout at the OS corral -- including a team the company has assembled to evaluate the competitive challenge that Linux represents. Given Microsoft's record, how do you see this competition evolving over the next six months or year? A I think that Microsoft will do a lot to promote the fact that NT is just as stable and secure as Linux, and they will run a lot of tests to prove that, but it is so driven off the type of equipment, and the type of applications you're running. Of course, some of these tests can be positioned in your favor, Linux or NT.

I think if Linux continues to move forward the way it is, it's just a matter of time before Microsoft has a Linux offering also. There's not just going to walk away and say, 'Linux is a fad,' because I don't think anybody believes that.

Q Corel launched a Linux Advisory Council to bring together "leaders from the open-source and commercial Linux world," holding their first meeting recently. What are your thoughts on this? A Corel's an interesting company. It was built originally as a competitor to Harvard Graphics, and so on. They had a lot of graphics, and now they've moved into word processing, spreadsheets, and so on. I think that the Linux world could be an absolute great play for them to move in that direction, instead of just trying to compete against Word and Excel, and everybody else at this point.

Anytime anyone's going to pull together a Linux group, or open environment conference, I think it's a good thing because it helps us all to try and understand where this thing's going. Whenever you're dealing with an open environment, as you probably know, the software can go in many different directions. And I think anytime you can get a group together to try and at least get some standards set up, it's a good thing, so that we aren't all trying to re-invent the wheel.

Q Linus Torvalds certainly, and even Robert Young of Red Hat, have attained a sort of celebrity status. What do you think about how they, and Linux generally, have been portrayed by the media? A First of all I think, as far as the celebrity status, Linus Torvalds deserves a lot of credit. He is the creator of this, and to put it in an open-source environment was very risky, in fact it was what I consider very un-capitalistic. But on the other hand, what a phenomenon it's created and just how wonderful it's been for all of us that it happened that way.

Bob Young, of course, is the one guy that has been able to bring out the first commercial version of Linux, and actually bring out something that's been very popular. When you pick up a magazine and see that, I'm actually very proud of what's happened because so much of our last five years has been dominated by what Microsoft has done. And for all the right reasons, it's kind of refreshing to have some new technology come out and catch fire to see what it's all about. I enjoy reading about it.

Q Where do you see commercial Linux and, for that matter, where do you see Macmillan one year from now? A Commercial Linux will continue to evolve. Over the next year, there will be many, many modifications to it to make it more and more user-friendly. Pushing the envelope more and more on Windows or the Macintosh environment. It's got a long ways to go, as I'm sure you know. Right now, it's a very technical system. For the most part, if you're loading it up and using it, you're probably a technical-driven individual. You're probably not just Joe Blow off the street wanting to plug and play.

For the people setting up secure environments, setting up Internet servers for running different applications that they just want to push the envelope, it's great. But, it's going to move its way into the office environment. Right now, if you find it in a lot of office environments, it's really because somebody from the IT department has brought it in and is experimenting with it. You haven't see widespread Procter & Gamble saying they're moving to Linux.

But it's a grassroots effort right now, that's what I tell everybody that asks me. The fact that Macmillan could sell 5,000 units in one week at CompUSA of an operating system based on Linux says to me that it's moving mass market. There's a part of me that says that there's a lot of people out there trying it right now, and they see that they can get Quake and Quake II or Civilization or word processing. They're probably taking it home, or taking it the office. That's what I think is happening right now.

The next phase, maybe it's a year from now, is you may see actual businesses starting to use it. That's when you'll see Joe Blow off the street really becoming involved, I believe. This is all, of course, my opinion. I'm not a prognosticator, but obviously I have insight about business. But I don't think anyone really knows where this thing is going, and that's the fun part about it.

As far as Macmillan, quite honestly, I really want us to -- forgive how I use this -- become the Symantec of Linux. I'm stealing, of course, Symantec's name. But really what I'm trying to say, in a very simplistic way, is I want to be a large provider of utilities, of add-ons, of games, whatever it takes to make Linux popular. When you walk in to CompUSA or BestBuy today, you'll find Macmillan right now as the dominant player in the Linux area of the shelf space. To me, the fact that we have such widespread distribution says that we're a company that's capable of pushing the distribution envelope with an operating system.

So, where do I see us? We're going to continue to expand our Internet interface into Linux, as well as to try to create as many partnerships as we can with Linux companies, so that we obviously can provide the best offering out there. But we'll do a lot more than just the operating system itself.


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