OR as Long as Anyone Can Remember, Michael Robertson Has Been Fighting with Someone or Something

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OR as long as anyone can remember, Michael Robertson has been fighting with someone or something. He sparred with his political science professors in college because they were too liberal; he started MP3.com in 1997 and tussled with his co-founders and investors when they would not do things his way. He fought with the music industry, which accused his company, a distribution site for digital music, of piracy.

When the major labels sued MP3.com, Robertson spent millions battling them, lost - yet still walked away with $115m when Vivendi Universal bought what remained of his company.

Now Robertson has a new fight on his hands, this time with an opponent that makes the recording industry look like a 98lb weakling: Bill Gates. Over the past year Robertson's latest company, Lindows, has crafted software that mimics the look, features and feel of Windows.

The major difference is this: instead of developing proprietary code, Robertson has taken advantage of the free Linux operating system and its legion of freelance programmers to cobble together his product. Oh, and Lindows and its Office-like offerings are at least half the price of Windows and Office.

Microsoft's not taking the challenge lightly. Within weeks of Lindows' formation, Microsoft sued the company for trademark infringement, saying the copycat name is getting a free ride on the $1.2bn Microsoft has invested in marketing Windows.

Silicon Valley has proved to be Death Valley for those who have challenged Microsoft's core operating systems business. But do not count Robertson out just yet. Even his detractors (and there are plenty) say he is on to something powerful: the increasing popularity of Linux and the increasing frustration with Microsoft.

Over the past two years Linux has spread like a virus through corporate data centres. Companies once dependent on expensive proprietary systems from Sun, IBM or Hewlett-Packard have replaced them with dirt-cheap Dell or no-name boxes that are Intel-powered and loaded with Linux.

Linux now runs nearly 10% of all servers and is growing at about 23% a year. PC users have yet to latch on - less than 1% of all computers run Linux - but a survey last year by CIO magazine found that almost 30% of chief technologists were considering moving their companies' PCs to Linux.

Already almost every major electronics maker, from HP in printers to Epson in scanners, is making sure it has Linux-compatible offerings. Sun has poured millions of dollars into its Star Office software suite, which gives Linux users programs that work like (and, more important, are compatible with) PowerPoint, Word and Excel.

Microsoft's legendary hard-headedness has helped to fuel this small fire. Starting with Office 2000, the company put padlocks on its software, preventing it from being installed on more than one machine. The idea was to stamp out piracy; instead it stamped out what had become commonplace among home and small-business users: using one copy on multiple PCs. That has driven up the cost of Windows and Office sharply.

"It's not fair to a small guy like me," says Charles Russell, a 72-year-old insurance investigator in Santa Rosa, California, who has recently been experimenting with Lindows. "It cost me $600 to upgrade my three computers to Windows XP."

Robertson is not the only one hoping to cash in. Software companies like Red Hat, Mandrake and Suse all offer Linux products that compete with Windows. But Lindows has a few things those companies do not have: it has Robertson's bombastic personality to sell it; and it is easier to install and use.

Wal-Mart, which began selling Lindows-ready PCs on its website in September, has had such success with the offering that by Christmas it was having trouble meeting demand.

"In every business sector there is always room for a low-cost provider," says Robertson. "Computer users only have one choice right now, and that's Microsoft. …