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Editor's Note: Sun's (Multiple) Case(s) Against Red Hat

Oct 01, 2004, 23:30 (24 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Oh, my, is the the spin flying this week! And I'm not talking about the US Presidential debates.

To fully appreciate this latest spin, I need to take you back a bit to April of this year. This is when, prompted by a motivation to start raising his company's cred, Sun president Jonathan Schwartz started tossing the "proprietary" label at Red Hat.

Naturally, this caused quite a stir, since initially no one could figure out how a company with open source products could be proprietary. Red Hat itself came out with just this very argument, and a lot of folks in the tech community seemed to agree. I read one decent argument in July from Ian Murdock's blog that made a fairly good case for a proprietary Red Hat. Basically, the proprietary nature of the Linux company was inherent in its business practices, not its product line.

Okay, that was a bit of a stretch, but I can buy that argument. What I don't buy is why this is such a bad thing. I thank every company, open source products or no, is going to try to maneuver itself into a better market position. Sun will. Novell will. Heck, I will, whenever I come up with my Million Dollar Invention. Guess what? It's capitalism. Red Hat encourages vendor lock-in. I have very little doubt that most Linux companies are going to try to do the same thing.

Now, that said, let's move up to this month, when CNET's George Colony had a sit-down with Schwartz and CEO Scott McNealy. In that interview, Schwartz laid out in clear detail Sun's plan for dominating the server market. Naturally, the first two steps in their plan revolved around attacking Red Hat.

Step 1, according to Colony's article, is to equate Linux with Red Hat. Er, okay. Red Hat is proprietary, and now it represents All Linux? Well, that's certainly a change in tactic. You can't use the business practice argument for Red Hat anymore, since--if you say it represents Linux--business arguments cannot apply across all distros. How Debian works is way different, in business terms, from how Gentoo works, from how SUSE works, and so on. Therefore, Red Hat represents Linux in the sense of code, right?

Well, as far as technology, I think many would agree that Red Hat is far different from Debian, Gentoo, SUSE, and the rest. There is shared commonality in the kernel, of course, but things diverge wildly from there.

But, let's say, for the sake of argument, you can make a valid point that Red Hat is Linux. After all, if you can forget about the GPL, the entire philosophy of open source, and every other Linux distribution that has existed since the Dawn of Time (or, more literally, 1991) you can probably make that assertion. Of course, you would have to give up that whole notion of Red Hat being proprietary, since if there's one thing Linux is not, it's proprietary.

Giving up that train of thought is fine, because everyone changes their mind once in a while. This leaves Sun with a strong tactic with which to attack Red Hat.

Except for (and now we're up to this week)... they're still pushing that proprietary line! As late as yesterday, Sun's flacks were running out this line out, when they e-mailed me this unsolicited bit of spin about Red Hat's acquisition of Netscape technology:

"As you may have read this morning, Red Hat announced that it is acquiring the Netscape server software owned by AOL Time Warner and plans to release it under an open-source license. Wanted to offer you Sun comment if you're interested.

"Simply put:

  1. "Red Hat is acquiring antique software. Having established its market position through a proprietary distribution of Linux, the company is now using its position to build out a software stack by buying antique middleware technologies.
  2. "This is a backwards strategy for Red Hat, which used to be about taking the best of open source and bringing it to the commercial sector. Now they're taking retreads to open source sector.

Right.

As you can see in point 1, the proprietary label is still being trotted out. Which seems in direct contradiction to the notion that Linux equals Red Hat. The whole missive is just darned strange, especially that bit about "taking retreads to [the] open source sector." I would submit that the recent skyrocketing success of Firefox, itself of Netscape ancestry, and therefore another "retread," could easily blow this argument out of the water.

But, on my main point: while I don't really buy either one of Sun's lines about Red Hat, I think the point is made that clearly they should only use one at a time. In their zeal to make up for lost market share, Sun is trying a multi-pronged approach--and each prong contradicts the other.

In other words, they look dumber than a doorknob.

I will fully acknowledge that Sun has made great contributions to the open source community, as some other pundits have pointed out of late. I certainly would not argue that. But, let's be clear: Sun has turned a corner on its attitude about Linux and is on the throes of launching a major business and PR attack against the Linux technology, all while trying not to completely alienate the open source community and its developer resources.

They are counting on the fact that Linux is not the whole of open source and that they will be able to provide vendors and developers and end-users a better open source experience than Linux with an open Solaris.

This will be a neat trick. Because, while Linux is not the whole of open source, it should be noted that many in the open source community--Linux, BSD, Hurd, etc.--will not look kindly on an outright attack by a commercial entity on an open source project. Because they know the next target might be them.

Better, I think, if Sun tries to stand on the merits of an open Solaris and bring customers in by good, solid value.

Sure. That'll happen.