Ball, a jovial, plain-talking businessman, is CEO
of Ernie Ball, the world's leading maker of premium
guitar strings endorsed by generations of artists
ranging from the likes of Eric Clapton to the dudes
But since jettisoning all
of Microsoft products three years ago, Ernie
has also gained notoriety as a company that
dumped most of its proprietary software--and still
lived to tell the tale.
In 2000, the Business Software Alliance conducted
a raid and subsequent audit at the San Luis Obispo,
Calif.-based company that turned up a few dozen
unlicensed copies of programs. Ball settled for
$65,000, plus $35,000 in legal fees. But by then,
the BSA, a trade group that helps enforce copyrights
and licensing provisions for major business software
makers, had put the company on the evening news
and featured it in regional ads warning other businesses
to monitor their software licenses.
Humiliated by the experience, Ball told his IT
department he wanted Microsoft products out of his
business within six months. "I said, 'I don't care
if we have to buy 10,000 abacuses,'" recalled Ball,
who recently addressed the LinuxWorld trade show.
"We won't do business with someone who treats us
Ball's IT crew settled on a potpourri of open-source
software--Red Hat's version of Linux, the OpenOffice
office suite, Mozilla's Web browser--plus a few
proprietary applications that couldn't be duplicated
by open source. Ball, whose father, Ernie, founded
the company, says the transition was a breeze, and
since then he's been happy to extol the virtues
of open-source software to anyone who asks. He spoke
with CNET News.com about his experience.
Q: Can you start by giving us a brief rundown
of how you became an open-source advocate?
A: I became an open-source guy because we're a privately
owned company, a family business that's been around
for 30 years, making products and being a good member
of society. We've never been sued, never had any
problems paying our bills. And one day I got a call
that there were armed marshals at my door talking
about software license compliance...I thought I
was OK; I buy computers with licensed software.
But my lawyer told me it could be pretty bad.
The BSA had a program back then called "Nail Your
Boss," where they encouraged disgruntled employees
to report on their company...and that's what happened
to us. Anyways, they basically shut us down...We
were out of compliance I figure by about 8 percent
(out of 72 desktops).
How did that happen?
We pass our old computers down. The guys in engineering
need a new PC, so they get one and we pass theirs
on to somebody doing clerical work. Well, if you
don't wipe the hard drive on that PC, that's a violation.
Even if they can tell a piece of software isn't
being used, it's still a violation if it's on that
hard drive. What I really thought is that you ought
to treat people the way you want to be treated.
I couldn't treat a customer the way Microsoft dealt
with me...I went from being a pro-Microsoft guy
to instantly being an anti-Microsoft guy.
Did you want to settle?
Never, never. That's the difference between the
way an employee and an owner thinks. They attacked
my family's name and came into my community and
made us look bad. There was never an instance of
me wanting to give in. I would have loved to have
fought it. But when (the BSA) went to Congress to
get their powers, part of what they got is that
I automatically have to pay their legal fees from
day one. That's why nobody's ever challenged them--they
can't afford it. My attorney said it was going to
cost our side a quarter million dollars to fight
them, and since you're paying their side, too, figure
at least half a million. It's not worth it. You
pay the fine and get on with your business. What
most people do is get terrified and pay their license
and continue to pay their licenses. And they do
that no matter what the license program turns into.
What happened after the auditors showed up?
It was just negotiation between lawyers back and
forth. And while that was going on, that's when
I vowed I was never going to use another one of
their products. But I've got to tell you, I couldn't
have built my business without Microsoft, so I thank
them. Now that I'm not so bitter, I'm glad I'm in
the position I'm in. They made that possible, and
I thank them.
So it was the publicity more than the audit
itself that got you riled?
Nobody likes to be made an example of, but especially
in the name of commerce. They were using me to sell
software, and I just didn't think that was right.
Call me first if you think we have a compliance
issue. Let's do a voluntary audit and see what's
there. They went right for the gut...I think it
was because it was a new (geographical) area for
them, and we're the No. 1 manufacturer in the county,
so why not go after us?
So what did swearing off Microsoft entail?
We looked at all the alternatives. We looked at
Apple, but that's owned in part by Microsoft. (Editor's
note: Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple in
1997.) We just looked around. We looked at Sun's
Sun Ray systems. We looked at a lot of things. And
it just came back to Linux, and Red Hat in particular,
was a good solution.
So what kind of Linux setup do you have?
You know what, I'm not the IT guy. I make the business
decisions. All I know is we're running Red Hat with
Open Office and Mozilla and Evolution and the basic
I know I saved $80,000 right away by going to
open source, and each time something like (Windows)
XP comes along, I save even more money because
I don't have to buy new equipment to run the
We were creating the cocktail that people are
guzzling down today, but we had to find it and put
it together on our own. It's so funny--in three
and half years, we went from being these idiots
that were thinking emotionally rather than businesslike...to
now we're smart and talking to tech guys. I know
I saved $80,000 right away by going to open source,
and each time something like (Windows) XP comes
along, I save even more money because I don't have
to buy new equipment to run the software. One of
the great things is that we're able to run a poor
man's thin client by using old computers we weren't
using before because it couldn't handle Windows
2000. They work fine with the software we have now.
How has the transition gone?
It's the funniest thing--we're using it for e-mail
client/server, spreadsheets and word processing.
It's like working in windows. One of the analysts
said it costs $1,250 per person to change over to
open source. It wasn't anywhere near that for us.
I'm reluctant to give actual numbers. I can give
any number I want to support my position, and so
can the other guy. But I'll tell you, I'm not paying
any per-seat license. I'm not buying any new computers.
When we need something, we have white box systems
we put together ourselves. It doesn't need to be
much of a system for most of what we do.
But there's a real argument now about total
cost of ownership, once you start adding up service,
What support? I'm not making calls to Red Hat; I
don't need to. I think that's propaganda...What
about the cost of dealing with a virus? We don't
have 'em. How about when we do have a problem, you
don't have to send some guy to a corner of the building
to find out what's going on--he never leaves his
desk, because everything's server-based. There's
no doubt that what I'm doing is cheaper to operate.
The analyst guys can say whatever they want.
The other thing is that if you look at productivity.
If you put a bunch of stuff on people's desktops
they don't need to do their job, chances are they're
going to use it. I don't have that problem. If all
you need is word processing, that's all you're going
to have on your desktop, a word processor. It's
not going to have Paint or PowerPoint. I tell you
what, our hits to eBay went down greatly when not
everybody had a Web browser. For somebody whose
job is filling out forms all day, invoicing and
exporting, why do they need a Web browser? The idea
that if you have 2,000 terminals they all have to
have a Web browser, that's crazy. It just creates
Have you heard anything from Microsoft since
you started speaking out about them?
I got an apology today from a wants-to-be-anonymous
Microsoft employee who heard me talk. He asked me
if anyone ever apologized, because what happened
to me sounded pretty rough to him, and I told him
no. He said, "Well, I am. But we're nice guys."
I'm sure they are. When a machine gets too big,
it doesn't know when it's stepping on ants. But
every once in a while, you step on a red ant.
Ernie Ball is pretty much known as a musician's
buddy. How does it feel to be a technology guru,
I think it's great for me to be a technology influence.
It shows how ridiculous it is that I can get press
because I switched to OpenOffice. And the reason why
is because the myth has been built so big that you
can't survive without Microsoft, so that somebody
who does get by without Microsoft is a story.
The myth has been built so big that you can't
survive without Microsoft.
It's just software. You have to figure out what
you need to do within your organization and then
get the right stuff for that. And we're not a backwards
organization. We're progressive; we've won communications
and design awards...The fact that I'm not sending
my e-mail through Outlook doesn't hinder us. It's
just kind of funny. I'm speaking to a standing-room-only
audience at a major technology show because I use
a different piece of software--that's hysterical.
You've pretty much gotten by with off-the-shelf
software. Was it tough to find everything you needed
in the open-source world?
Yeah, there are some things that are tough to find,
like payroll software. We found something, and it
works well. But the developers need to start writing
the real-world applications people need to run a
business...engineering, art and design tools, that
kind of stuff...They're all trying to build servers
that already exist and do a whole bunch of stuff
that's already out there...I think there's a lot
of room to not just create an alternative to Microsoft
but really take the next step and do something new.
Any thoughts on SCO's claims on Linux?
I don't know the merits of the lawsuit, but I run
their Unix and I'm taking it off that system. I
just don't like the way it's being handled. I feel
like I'm being threatened again.
They never said anything to me, and if I was smart,
I probably wouldn't mention it. But I don't like
how they're doing it. What they're doing is casting
a shadow over the whole Linux community. Look, when
you've got Windows 98 not being supported, NT not
being supported, OS/2 not being supported--if you're
a decision maker in the IT field, you need to be
able to look at Linux as something that's going
to continue to be supported. It's a major consideration
when you're making those decisions.
What if SCO wins?
There are too many what-ifs. What if they lose?
What if IBM buys them? I really don't know, and
I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. But I
can't believe somebody really wants to claim ownership
of Linux...it's not going to make me think twice.
You see, I'm not in this just to get free software.
No. 1, I don't think there's any such thing as free
software. I think there's a cost in implementing
all of it. How much of a cost depends on whom you
talk to. Microsoft and some analysts will tell you
about all the support calls and service problems.
That's hysterical. Have they worked in my office?
I can find out how many calls my guys have made
to Red Hat, but I'm pretty sure the answer is none
or close to it...It just doesn't crash as much as
Windows. And I don't have to buy new computers every
time they come out with a new release and abandon
the old one.
Has Microsoft tried to win you back?
Microsoft is a growing business with $49 billion
in the bank. What do they care about me? If they
cared about me, they wouldn't have approached me
the way they did in the first place...And I'm glad
they didn't try to get me back. I thank them for
opening my eyes, because I'm definitely money ahead
now and I'm definitely just as productive, and I
don't have any problems communicating with my customers.
So thank you, Microsoft.