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