Turn Red Hat blue?

This week, I'll tell you one very big reason why it would be bad for AOL Time Warner to purchase Red Hat.

Red Hat has done wonders to help Linux penetrate the server market. An AOL Time Warner purchase would almost certainly upset Red Hat's relationship with its customers and server vendors. This might prompt them to look elsewhere for a Linux distribution. Or worse, they might abandon Linux altogether.

Therefore I'd like to suggest a more appropriate buyer for Red Hat: IBM Corp.

I can think of no better way to make a case for this purchase than by answering what I would anticipate would be the most common objections. I'll start with the inevitable suggestion that IBM would do to Red Hat Linux what it did for OS/2 ignore it to death.

IBM regarded OS/2 as a liability only because the threat of OS/2 prompted Microsoft Corp. to withhold a licensing deal from IBM to preload Windows 95. That threatened IBM's profits on client hardware sales just when IBM was hoping to make a comeback on the desktop. Today, the desktop market is saturated. IBM and most other hardware vendors are now scrambling to own as much of the high-margin server market as possible. Microsoft doesn't have any clout in this space. And whether or not they'll admit it publicly, most hardware vendors would prefer it if things stayed that way. The best way IBM can be sure it will control its own future is if it pushes Linux at the server now, before Microsoft has a chance to take over and start calling the shots.

Others will point out that IBM's purchasing record is spotty at best. IBM waited until Web standards nearly rendered Lotus Notes irrelevant before purchasing Lotus. But IBM hasn't been entirely dim with all of its purchases. It made sense for IBM to purchase Informix, for example. Informix gave IBM a bigger slice of the database market, its DataBlade technology and perhaps best of all, the Red Brick data warehouse.

But that begs the question, What technology would IBM get from Red Hat? Red Hat is open source. Like everyone else, IBM can get open-source software for free. So what could possibly motivate IBM to take on the burden of developing and selling an open-source operating system if it only wants Linux in order to sell its servers?

For one thing, IBM has already taken on the burden of improving Linux, even outside of the work it has done to make Linux run on IBM hardware. I suspect IBM has deliberately avoided drawing attention to its contributions so far to prevent a backlash from conspiracy theorists who would accuse IBM of trying to manipulate Linux to its exclusive advantage. That remains the single biggest risk for IBM, if it were to consider purchasing Red Hat. It could easily make too many enemies inside and outside the Linux community for the purchase to be worthwhile.

Here's what IBM has to consider before making a purchase like Red Hat. Linux needs a psychological boost in the market. Regardless of what the reality may be, many potential customers still don't perceive Linux as having a solid service and support infrastructure that will exist in 10 years. If IBM purchases Red Hat, it instantly solves this perception problem. IBM is an ideal service and support organization.

On the other hand, IBM's purchase of Red Hat could spook hardware competitors like Compaq and HP. It isn't likely that these competitors would react by backing off on their support for Linux, but it's not out of the question. They've done stupider things than that. If they did back off Linux, IBM would look like it bet on the wrong horse. That would undermine much of the credibility IBM gave to Linux as a platform by purchasing Red Hat.

I don't know if IBM is even considering such a deal, but I think it should. IBM has an ace in the hole that could erase any risks involved in purchasing Red Hat. I call it "hardware devolution," and I'll elaborate on it in a couple of weeks.

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Hayward, Calif. He can be reached at nicholas@petreley.com.

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