Careers: Interviews
Michael Robertson: Internationally renowned Visionary, Technology Authority, and Entrepreneur shares his views

Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., recently held an exclusive interview with world-renowned technology authority and entrepreneur, Michael L. Robertson.

Michael is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Linspire, Inc., the leading software company supporting a full desktop, Linux-based product line found in a variety of retail locations, including Walmart.com. (See http://www.linspire.com/featured.) He is also the Chief Executive Officer of SIPphone.com, a company that harnesses the power of the Internet to allow customers to make free long distance phone calls. (Learn more about SIPphone at www.sipphone.com/presskit ).

Michael’s past ventures include his tenure as Founder, CEO, and Chairman of the Board at MP3.com where he established the largest collection of digital music in the world, amassing more than 1 million downloadable MP3 files.

In the fall of 2002, Michael launched REEF (Robertson Educational Empowerment Foundation at the University of California, San Diego. REEF is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to promoting new and innovative programs of investment in education. (Read more about REEF at www.aboutreef.org.)

Discussion:

Q: Michael, considering the many demands on your time, we thank you for doing this interview.

A: My pleasure.

Q: You are an acknowledged leader in business and in innovation. How did your advanced studies in cognitive science including with the noted scientist Donald Norman and your work at the UCSD Supercomputer Center, contribute to your many successes?

A: My education was a hybrid. I took some computer science classes, but also some neurobiology and human interface design classes. While in college I did a research project with Apple and worked as an intern at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. Together these gave me a well-rounded knowledge base to fall back on. I don't think they should let University students graduate without performing an internship or two - that's how important I think they are.

Q: You have a long history of considerable achievements as an innovator, businessperson, and entrepreneur. Can you describe pivotal moments in your career and the many lessons you learned that would prove valuable to others?

A: I'm not at the point in my life where I can distill pearls of wisdom for others. I can say that my upbringing played a pivotal role in my business style. I grew up poor in a broken home. That experience instilled a self-reliance that I believe has helped me have the bravado required to start new companies and take them in different directions than the conventional wisdom advocated. I grew up not being too concerned about fitting in, perhaps because I knew that I could not, given the financial situation of my family. It's tough to be cool when you're dirt poor.

Q: With all the press on VoIP (voice-over-IP) and SIP (session initiation protocol), what do you hope to accomplish with SIPphone.com in the medium and long term?

A: SIP is an open standard which allows different software and hardware to move phone calls around the internet instead of the "old" phone system. It's not unlike MP3, but for phone calls instead of music. SIPphone runs a dialtone service for internet phones. At SIPphone, users can download free voice software for Mac/Win/Lin or buy a router with a phone port in the back. Once they install it, they are auto connected to SIPphone and have a phone number, voice mail and can start calling for free. My goal is to accelerate a change in the price of flexibility of phone calls. Consumers don't pay per web site they visit, or per email they send, so it's natural to move to a world where they don't pay per call. They will pay for a data connection and then use that for any data they wish. I think this would be a great world to move to.

Q: Can you comment on your vision, mission, goals and objectives with REEF?

A: As I've mentioned, my attendance at UCSD played an important role in giving me the tools to be a businessman. I hope every young person with the motivation has the opportunity to attend college. But we're witnessing a dramatic shift in educational funding which could create an education crisis. Government has historically heavily subsidized the cost at many universities, but that support is declining and at the same time college tuition fees are climbing. This means more of the costs are being pushed to students or families of the students. To make it possible for everyone to attend college, we need to explore new sources of funds for students to cover the cost of a college education, and that is what REEF is doing (http://www.aboutreef.com).

Today the capital markets provide money via investors to help fuel every imaginable activity or commodity except education. Gambling, orange juice production, home mortgages, credit card, cooking grease, coal, insurance are just a few of the industries where investment funds provide money to help them grow. Why can't we do the same for education? Why aren't there investment funds, which provide money for students to attend college and which receive some of the future income gains as a payback? Virtually everyone believes that education is a good investment, but there's no way for people to invest in education. Our goal with the non-profit REEF is to demonstrate that it is possible to build such a program. REEF provides money to students to attend college and in return, these students promise to repay a percentage of their future income back to the program, which in turn provides money for future students. If REEF is successful, then I envision a system where portfolios of funds in the stock market provide these monies.

Q: This is the third-year of sponsorship for the Desktop Linux Summit and similar to the model you used for the MP3 summits, which spurred the digital music revolution. What do you hope to accomplish with the Summit in the short, medium, and long term? What are the most notable features of the Summit?

A: Most of the undertakings I've embarked on have encompassed monumental changes of industries (digital music, linux, internet calls), which are too big a job for any one company. It really requires building a collaboration of hardware, software and service companies. One strategy we've taken is to have an annual conference where you bring all the players in the industry together. We don't put the conference on to make money, we typically lose money, but we gain value in helping push the whole industry forward.

People find it odd that we would invite competitors to give keynotes and have booths, but we're always operating in areas where there's plenty of opportunity for more then one company to be successful. At this year's Summit, Novell is a big sponsor and they'll be talking about the features in their products that make it great. We also invited Microsoft, but they declined to speak. I find that odd. If I got an invitation to speak at their conference, you can rest assured that I would attend and talk up Linspire. When we did the MP3 Summit, we invited the record labels and some attended and spoke and I thought it added a lot of value.

This year's Summit (see: http://www.desktopsummit.com) will be a collection of great speakers like Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and now Chairman of Mozilla, Rob Glaser, CEO of Real Networks, and others. There will be some exciting new products on display like OpenOffice 2.0 beta, MP3tunes, Linspire Five-O, MP3beamer, Switchvox and more. These conferences are always a good time to catch up with industry movers and shakers.

Q: For the uninitiated, can you provide some commentary on the following:

Firefox
The world is just awaking to the quality improvements in many open source programs and Firefox is one of the first to gain wide spread notice. It is web browser from the Mozilla foundation which is receiving great reviews. We've actually shipped a web browser with the same "gecko" engine for awhile.

OpenOffice.org
This is another open source program which has made incredible strides and is now at a high quality level. It's an open source office suite which we ship with Linspire. Sun Computers is really the brains and money behind this initiative and they probably don't get enough credit for championing this product.

Lsongs, Lphoto, Nvu
Linux works because there's a network of companies and individuals working to compete against a monopoly. Lsongs, Lphoto and Nvu are some of the consumer-friendly software programs which Linspire has championed which fill in some holes for desktop Linux. They are a music manager (http://www.lsongs.com), photo manager (http://www.lphoto.com), and an easy-to-use web editor (http://www.nvu.com). They are all bundled with Linspire Five-O, but are also bundled with other Linux versions and they are open source.

The Gimp
This is a popular Photoshop type of program which is available for Mac/Win/Lin. Probably overkill for the average desktop user, but indispensable for anyone working with graphics.

KDE
This is a community effort to provide the framework for the graphical part of a Linux operating system. We use it for Linspire.

Gnome
This is a competitor to KDE. We do not use the graphical interface portion since we use KDE, but if programs are written with Gnome, they run fine on Linspire. Our default Instant Messenger (IM) in fact is GAIM, which is a program written for Gnome.

Gaim
This is a meta-IM client meaning that it can be used with all the popular instant messenger networks like AOL, ICQ, Yahoo and MSN. We have added free voice calling to this program and it available for Microsoft Windows and Linux computers from http://www.phonegaim.com.

Q: You have a dedicated program shaping Linspire’s offerings in much the same way that AOL created an environment for everyone (the non-technical). As an example, Linspire’s CNR (“click and run”) technology and “Warehouse” is a powerful and differentiating combination for ease-of-use. Can you provide more details on this and other initiatives making Linux mainstream?

A: We want to make a PC ultra-easy to install and update software. So we built CNR as a way to achieve a digital distribution strategy. We have about 1,800 of the best open source software programs all in one library at http://www.linspire.com/warehouse. Just one click will permanently install any of those software programs on a Linspire computer which will work forever. CNR also provides an update service where all the software on a Linspire computer can be updated with one mouse click. It's an optional service we provide to users for $5 a month or $50 per year.

It's also a way we generate revenue with Linspire. Since we typically charge just $10 or less to a computer manufacturer to ship a computer with Linspire (Microsoft charges about $100-250 depending on the configuration), we need another revenue source. CNR is what will help our company get to profitability. I should stress that this service is optional. Linspire users can choose to pay for this service or not. They can of course manually install software programs on their computer, but that can be challenging on Linux. Anyone who tries CNR is amazed because it’s fast and easy. It's really how computers should work.

Q: There are many misconceptions about Linux and its suitability for all classes of users. Describe the strengths of your platform for the different user categories.

A: I think it's easier to discuss the weaknesses. With the exception of video games, desktop Linux is capable of performing just about any PC task well. The amount of software for desktop Linux has exploded and the quality which was lacking a few years ago is there as well.

Q: What are your main challenges in growing and supporting your distribution channel?

A: We are moving to a new phase for desktop Linux. Over the last few years it's been an engineering challenge. Can we build an operating system that will have the ease of use, the applications, and the support for peripherials that is required to be practical for desktop users. With Linspire Five-O we now have that product. Now, the focus needs to be on building that distribution channel which is a very different exercise. It has nothing to do with engineering, but requires working with hardware companies and retailers so that in every computer store there is a Linux section with laptops and desktops for people to see.

Building the "channel", as it is called, is where Linspire is now focusing its energy. To find motivated partners who are not financially beholden to Microsoft, to provide support and quality assurance resources, to work on out-of-box experiences, and to market to end-users that desktop Linux is affordable, virus-free, stable and capable.

Q: Comment on Lraiser.com?

A: Lraiser is fun evangelist web site that shows where new Linspire users are appearing each week around the world. We need our existing users to help educate and convince more people to try Linux. We call these volunteers Lraisers since they are raising the number of Linux or Linspire users. We can track this because the first time a Linspire computer is turned on CNR contacts the mother ship. It doesn't send any personal information, but it does provide an IP address which we can use to approximate where the computer is. These are the locations that show on the Lraiser map. There are also some motivating stories about user's experiences with pictures.

Q: Thank you Michael for sharing your considerable experiences and “genius” with our audience!

A: Thanks for giving me an opportunity to update your readers on some of our initiatives. 

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