Tilting at Windmills

Steve Hamm

By S. Hamm

Usually, it's hard to take seriously a guy who looks like an alumni of the Mickey Mouse Club, but, for Michael Robertson, you've got to make an exception. He not only took on the record industry in court and in the marketplace, but now he's eyeball-to-ankle with mighty Microsoft. Robertson was the founder of MP3.com, a pioneer of music downloading, and later Lindows, a scrappy Linux software company that last year changed its name to Linspire after Microsoft launched a worldwide legal full-court press. He dropped by our offices recently bearing a CD containing Linspire's latest operating system update, which he had burned and labeled himself. "We’re very formal," he joked. "And we’re ready to take on Microsoft."

He's dead serious about the taking-on-Microsoft part, though. During most of Linspire's three years as a startup, most of the news it made was related to its original name. Robertson chose Lindows because it was a handy melding of Linux, the open source operating system, with Windows.

The idea was that his company would combine Linux with the ease-of-use features associated with Windows and sell it for a fraction of Windows' price. No surprise: Microsoft sued, accusing him of trademark infringement, even before he had his first product out the door. Microsoft lawsuits in the United States and Europe kept Lindows and Robertson bobbing up in the news. Hey, you've got to wonder if he planned it that way! The case was settled last year with Robertson agreeing to change the company name. Rumor has it Microsoft paid HIM $20 million to get that little thorn out of its paw.

Now Robertson has to compete the old fashioned way—in the marketplace. That will be tougher. While Linspire is distributed in MicroTel computers sold on Walmart.com, only 300,000 people are using it so far. That's not much of a splash in a world awash in 500 million PCs. He's hoping to go mainstream with the release in a few weeks of the latest version of his product, called Linspire 5-0. Here's Robertson's blog on it. 5-0 is based on Debian Linux, one of a handful of Linux versions that are readily available for free. Linspire has added to the basic package with an easier-to-use interface, etc. He says CompUSA and Best Buy now plan to sell the $59.95 boxed software, in addition to Frys, a California chain, which started carrying it last year.

I don't hold out a lot of hope for Linspire becoming a force in the industry. After all, mighty players such as HP, Dell and IBM haven't been able to make much of Linux on the desktop. But Robertson is fighting a guerilla war against Microsoft with Microsoft's money, so you’ve got to like that.

Robertson hasn’t given up on his quest to revolutionize the music business, either. He launched MP3tunes.com a month ago—a new Web site where he sells songs in the industry-standard MP3 format for 88 cents a pop. It's mostly garage-band stuff. Robertson criticizes Apple and Microsoft for pushing their own proprietary formats, which limits the free flow of bits. "That's a bad world. So I'm back in digital music,” he says.

In a tech world that has lost much of its original change-the-world passion as it hits maturity, it's refreshing to have Robertson around.