Linux Means Business

The fourth of our daily extracts we are publishing this week from Glyn Moody's Rebel Code

The fourth of our daily extracts we are publishing this week from Glyn Moody's Rebel Code

Novell was also the impetus behind the creation of an outfit that would eventually become the third major distribution in the GNU/Linux Gang of Four, Pacific HiTech.

Pacific HiTech's founder, Cliff Miller, had led a pretty adventurous life up to that point. Born in San Francisco, he had lived in Australia for a year as a child, and then went to Japan for two years, where he stayed with a Japanese family and attended a public school. After he moved back to the United States, Miller attended college, and spent a year in Macedonia, then a part of Yugoslavia, to further his studies of the Macedonian language. "I finished my BA when I was nineteen," he explains, "and then a year later got my MA in linguistics as well," and adds with what amounts to something of an understatement, "I tend to be pretty intense, and just get through things as fast as I can."

Miller's life then took a different turn. "I went to work in a salt factory, and then in the Wyoming oil fields for a little over half a year, driving a big truck." But Miller succumbed to the lure of Asia, one of the fixed points of his world, and returned to Japan to teach English there. He then moved to China, where he taught English at a science university and met and married his wife, Iris, a native of Beijing who speaks fluent English and Japanese.

When the couple returned to the United States, Miller says, he "worked at Xerox for a while, in their multilingual software group. At the time I didn't know much at all about computers and programming, but was really interested. I applied to a number of schools and got accepted into graduate school in computer science, with scholarships at the University of Utah."

In 1992, when he had started a PhD at Utah, Novell had made Miller's wife redundant after it acquired the company where she was working. Rather than look around for another job, Miller and Iris started a new company, Pacific HiTech, in their basement. "Our initial aim was to sell U.S. or Western software into the Japanese market," Miller explains-a business they were well qualified to take on given their shared linguistic and computing skills. "And very quickly we became a CD-ROM publisher, taking free software and shareware from the Internet, publishing it on CD-ROM." Miller notes, "We were one of the first companies to be profitable by basing our business mainly on the Internet."

During their investigation of free software that was available on the Internet, they came across GNU/Linux. "It was another thing that we could take and turn into a product," Miller recalls, and adds: "but it was much more than that as well. We actually used Linux very early on, as a development tool, internally."

This development work paid off a few years later. After selling free software and other people's GNU/Linux distributions, Miller and his wife decided to come out with their own-but with a difference. "We figured well, gee, we're already testing and doing some development on Linux, and Japan was kind of a wide open market for Linux because nobody was doing a real Japanese commercial version of Linux, so we decided to do it there." This was in late 1997.

As with Caldera's first product, Pacific HiTech's distribution included some proprietary software, and largely for the same reasons. A GNU/ Linux distribution for Japan largely needed to support the Japanese language fully; GNU/Linux was capable of doing this, but required the addition of Japanese fonts, for example, as well as other specialized elements. Pacific HiTech's product offered these in the form of commercial soft-ware. "There were things out there in the free software world," Miller explains, "but they weren't of the same quality, so we have a few different versions" of the distribution, including "a completely free version that doesn't have the commercial stuff. The basic distribution is all GPL."

Pacific HiTech's distribution has done well in Japan, and also in China following the launch of a localized version there in the spring of 1999. Miller says that "nobody really knows" exactly how big their market share is in these markets because distributions can be downloaded and copied freely, "but we figure it's over 50 percent in Asia." Given this success, it was natural that Miller should think about entering the U.S. market. "We've always sold just a trickle of products. We really beefed up our selling efforts last quarter of '99." By this time, the company had changed its name to TurboLinux, reflecting in part that it was no longer concentrating on the Asian market. It was an appropriate choice for a company run by the quietly spoken but intellectually turbocharged Miller.

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