The statement that the Czech Republic is a software super power might surprise some. But the claim rings true especially when it comes to anti-virus programs. And the Prague company Alwil is the best example. Its anti-virus program avast! Is one of the most successful and wide-spread products of any Czech company on the global market. It is currently used by some 70 million people around the world. Avast history includes local versions of typical garage stories, in which talented students founded now giant computer companies.
Program in shadow
Alwil founders, Pavel Baudiš and Eduard Kučera, met in the 1980s as fresh technology graduates in the Research Institute for Mathematical Machines. This institute, legendary in the computer circles, represented an oasis for its employees in the communist times. Software pre-history used to intertwine with the then uncommon freedom of thought. A number of Charta 77 signers worked there (such as Jan Sokol or Václav Žák) since the communists obviously did not consider the software development to be an ideologically essential field.
“There were many smart people and a lot of free time,” Pavel Baudiš remembers. And despite technological novelties arriving with a delay, it wasn’t too difficult to keep up with the world. “It is hard to imagine today. We were developing graphics and software only for big hall computers in the middle of 1980s. We got the first real PC in 1987, none of us had worked with it before that,” Baudiš says. But everyone was devouring technical magazines from the west. It had paradoxical results. “When I first visited the US in 1991 I found out that most of my colleagues have no time to educate themselves systematically. The progress was just so fast. We were very strong on theory but had little opportunities to practically use it,” Baudiš says.
First PCs brought about the first virus. Someone brought it to the Institute on a floppy disc. “I enjoyed examining it and I also wrote a program that eliminated it,” says Baudiš. And that was the very beginning of the successful avast whose first copy was created 20 years ago.
Baudiš and Kučera, nevertheless, wanted more than just free time for thinking and a possibility of doing something fun from time to time. That is why they left the institute for Zenitcentrum (that used to be the centre for scientific and technological creativity of youth). “It was an obscure institution, catered for by the SSM (Socialist Youth Union), but there was a lot of space for programming there. Moreover, we were already thinking of going solo,” says Baudiš. “The only way, back then, led through establishing a production cooperative. And so we established Alwil, but before all was settled the revolution took place.” Nevertheless, the road to a successful company had been paved.
And now for free
Alwil started up as a family company with a few employees. There are now 70 people employed and in a year this number should reach 120. The company was the first in the world to offer anti-virus protection for Windows 95. Avast is currently putting together its fifth generation in more than 30 languages and this product is one of the most popular security programs in many countries such as France and Brazil. Professional quality tests examining the capacity of virus detection or speed of program update among other things, have been constantly placing Alwil among the three best anti-virus companies in the world.
The company joined the elite only around the year 2000 thanks to good marketing. “We were among the best in quality from the start but we were unable to compete in sales outside Czech market,” Baudiš says. “So we offered avast version for home non-commercial use for free. It was something new and it worked. Avast became known around the world without us investing into advertisement. And that of course projected into the interest of companies in buying our program. ”
Commercial software environment is a strongly competitive field but it also has a certain peculiarity where companies regularly consult issues and cooperate. “Certainly, each company is working on its own products but we tell each other about the new viruses though. It is illusory to think that somebody would conceal new virus versions from others in order to create special protection against them. There are too many viruses and their development is too fast, thousands appear every week,” Baudiš explains.
A prominent US company was interested in buying Alwil ten years ago. “Even though we were still facing problems with sales back then we did not consider the offer for a moment. The Americans did not understand it much but for us it was fun, to run the company as we liked, do what we enjoy and what we are good at,” says Baudiš.
Alwil owners have never considered moving from Prague either. “We have an international team, we have English, American, Portuguese, French people working with us. There even is one specialist from China and one from Japan. Prague has great location, it is beautiful, it is not a problem to get people from all over the world to come here. We can easily be sitting in an unremarkable building in Strašnice and update virus detection in our customers’ computers every four hours. We do not need Silicon Valley. The quality is the same but people and rents are higher,” says Baudiš.
Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.