Red-mond Hat?

I guess it's that time again. About once every quarter, someone circulates the story that the open-source world is cowering in fear over the possibility that Red Hat Inc. may become the next Microsoft Corp.

Pardon me if I fail to cringe.

The fear is valid. After all, many organizations are rightfully concerned that too much power in hands of a single company is a bad thing. And, with the open-source world growing rapidly, it is only prudent to be on the watch for a company with the potential to overpower the market.

The problem is that Red Hat just does not fit the bill. It is in no position to become a megalomanical dragon seeking to rule the IT world.

When push comes to shove, Red Hat is a branded services company rather than a software company. It delivers value to its customers based on total solutions, not merely software CDs. And although it delivers Red Hat-branded Linux CDs, it owns comparatively little software on those CDs. Its real value is bringing brand-name quality, organization, and services to open-source software.

Because Red Hat does not own the software, the company cannot "take the ball and go home." That is, it cannot suddenly declare that it is making the operating system a closed-source solution that is available solely from Red Hat.

Even if the company were to undertake the unthinkably stupid task of forking the kernel to make a special Red Hat Linux -- a boneheaded maneuver, unless you happen to have a huge development staff and massive amounts of cash -- it would still have to publish the source code, thanks to the GPL (General Public License). So a new competitor could arise and challenge Red Hat with its own code, if Red Hat were to become arrogant.

It pays to remember that MandrakeSoft SA began life as a meta-distribution of Red Hat. When Red Hat originally refused to ship KDE (K Desktop Environment) due to licensing problems (which have since been resolved), some people decided to take a downloaded copy of Red Hat and to add KDE to it. The result was Mandrake.

Now, Mandrake has gone its own direction and has become a popular distribution in its own right, thanks in part to its emphasis on Linux on the desktop. But it exists because Red Hat was slow to fulfill a need of some customers, and the GPL and other open-source licenses made all the critical code available to the budding distribution.

Open source is a great platform for building business solutions, but it is lousy for building empires. A Linux company can find itself quickly facing new and viable competition should it forsake the needs of the market and begin to travel down the path of tyrannical domination.

Don't waste your time fearing Red Hat, especially because there are some other companies in the IT world that seem far more interested in controlling your IT infrastructure.

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