Sometimes I suspect Bill Gates doesn't sleep so well at night.
Not out of any guilt over his billions or the alleged mediocrity
of his product. No, I wonder whether he might actually worry about
the competition. Not Apple (though that iPod MP3 player is a killer
toy, and I'm cheerfully typing these words on an Apple (AAPL)
PowerBook G4). No, I'll bet Linux and its creator, Linus Torvalds,
cross Gates's mind when he's looking up at the ceiling late at
On the surface, Linus vs. Bill seems to be the ultimate David
vs. Goliath contest. It appears to pit the man who cheerfully
gives away his code against the guy who ruthlessly seeks every
last penny for it. You'd expect Gates would squash Torvalds. Yet
they have more in common than you might think. And the final score
in their high-stakes rivalry could end up surprisingly close.
VS. ALTRUISM. For starters, the two face a similar
challenge. Even their big brains are puny compared to the wisdom
and knowledge spread throughout their organizations. In Gates's
case, it's a huge, publicly held company. In Torvalds' case, it's
a loosely connected but increasingly powerful network of software
developers. Both men must find ways to motivate people to work
together so knowledge can spread and have maximum impact on improving
Microsoft (MSFT) uses money to motivate. And no doubt about
it, that's a powerful incentive. But others exist. The community
of Linux users and developers is held together by pride and the
thrill of working toward a common goal of a universal, free (or
at least relatively inexpensive), elegant, bug-free or bug-resistant
alternative to Windows, the world's dominant computer operating
Can the volunteers who work on improving Linux outperform employees
dreaming of stock options? That's not to say Microsoft employees
are motivated only by money. They, too, take pride in their work.
Disdaining monetary incentives entirely would seem to cripple
Linux and reduce it to a charitable organization. But charities
work wonders. They can build a religious community or raise a
barn or build a habitat for a neighbor.
Look at the progress Gates's personal foundation is making against
malaria. Honda (HMC), I'm sure, would trounce the United Way's
attempts to design and build a car. But I wouldn't necessarily
expect Honda to do a good job at running a school for the blind.
With some causes, passion and pride can outperform money.
FERVOR. Designing software may be such a cause.
A lot of people are passionate about creating an alternative to
Windows. In some cases, the desire to see Windows' dominant position
threatened is its own passion. As a 21-year-old living at home,
Torvalds created Linux in 1991 in Finland. He offered it for free
to the world and made the source code available to anyone who
wanted to alter itas long as the tinkerer was willing to
make the new additions available to the public as well. The result
is a product embraced with religious fervor by the geek community
and even penetrating the mainstream, running servers and other
Yet the rivalry is defined by more than motivation and incentives.
Does Torvalds or Gates have more resources at his disposal? Gates,
right? But that answer assumes that money is the most important
asset. Even if money trumps idealism as a motivator, Torvalds
has a bigger teamthe millions who use Linux and continue
to tinker with it. Potentially, he has more brainpower on his
Torvalds has another advantage. His organization is less organized
than Microsoft. It's really a disorganization. At Microsoft, Gates
is the head honcho. Torvalds is just Linux' gatekeeper. He's not
really in controlhe's called the project leader, the guru.
That may appear to be a disadvantage. But remember the problem
that every organization's leader faces: The team's smartest member,
even if he or she is nominally in control, is vastly more ignorant
than the entire network of people who compose the organization.
CHAOS. Being disorganized can actually leverage
that knowledge more effectively than a command-and-control hierarchy.
Innovation must rely on creativity generated by the mass of folks
underneath. In a dynamic system, trial and error is a powerful
force for change. A bottom-up system with a gatekeeper can be
more innovative than the hierarchical system over which Gates
reigns. It can generate a lot more trials, and a good gatekeeper
can throw out the errors.
You would think being the head honcho allows Gates to plan.
But Torvalds rightfully revels in not planning. He's counting
on the marketplace's judgment of Linux and the wisdom of his disorganized
organization as a better strategy. He may be right. And while
Torvalds and Linux have recently faced legal issues about whether
Linux might have some proprietary code embedded in it, that distraction
is dwarfed by the time and energy Gates has devoted to battling
the U.S. Justice Dept. That antitrust case clearly diverted resources
away from innovation and making sure his organization was operating
at top efficiency.
While Torvalds is a threat to Gates, Gates seems to be little
or no threat to Torvalds. To hear Torvalds talk about it, he's
having fun as Linux' guardian. His challenge is merely that of
being an effective shepherd to a vast flock of very creative,
un-sheeplike sheep. Regardless of the marketplace's final judgment,
Torvalds probably sleeps a lot more soundly than Gates.