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Editor's Note: Novell Pot Meets Community Kettle

May 12, 2006, 23:30 (28 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I think we may have hurt Novell's feelings.

That's really the only reason I can come up with to justify CTO Jeff Jaffe's remarks regarding the open source community during a product announcement briefing with CNET News earlier this week. That--or a desperate need to grab headlines.

What should have been a routine announcement regarding their new open source identity management tool, Bandit, and the upcoming July release of SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 instead turned into an opportunity for Jaffe to take a gratuitous swipe at the open source community.

At least, it seemed gratuitous to me. I wasn't at the interview between Jaffe and CNET's Martin LaMonica, and I don't know how the statements in question came about. But knowing the work of LaMonica, I am having trouble envisioning him goading Jaffe into saying something nasty about the community just for the heck of it. I am also making assumptions based on my own interviews with corporate executives, which I'll get to in a moment.

In case you didn't read the article, the gist was this: Novell announced the aforementioned projects and wanted to make clear they were going to be offered in specific markets to go head-to-head against Microsoft offerings. Pretty typical stuff, and certainly nothing new. Novell, like Red Hat (and perhaps Oracle in the near future), wants to play in the enterprise space.

So what in the world brought this on?

"'With all due respect to the zealots of open source, it's not going to win the game if it's not focused on (enterprise) customer needs,' [Jaffe] said.

"We got the (open-source) religion, but we're going to proselytize the world by seeing where the world is today... rather than seeing where we want the world to be,' said Jaffe..."

Holy superfluous slams, Batman!

Okay, first off, when you start a sentence "with all due respect," you can pretty much bet that the rest of the statement is going to be something that doesn't deliver a lot of respect. In this case, there wasn't a lot of respect, nor did there seem to be any reason for the statement to begin with. As far as I know, there's not been a lot of criticism leveled at commercial Linux vendors for targeting the enterprise. For my own part, I think it's a bad idea to just focus on the enterprise market, an opinion I know I have shared quite often in this forum.

Second, I know a lot of people would like to see Linux and open source succeed in areas beyond the enterprise and I wouldn't call them all zealots. MontaVista, Canonical, Mandriva, LTSP, Collax... these are all firms and organizations that are trying to touch different channels--I cannot begin to name all of the rest, nor the individuals I know feel this way. Slapping a "zealot" label on them is overstating their methods and intentions at bets, and is insulting at worst.

In fact, according to my dictionary, the definition of zealotry is blindly following a cause or a method to the exclusion of all else. Even if we could ignore your enormously self-centered corporate attitude with your first statement, your next statement about "seeing the where the world is today... rather than seeing where we want the world to be" is smack-dab dead-on zealotry. You say you, Novell, are the only ones capable of seeing the world (read: market) properly?

And here I thought Microsoft had cornered the market on arrogance. I admit to error.

I suspect, strongly, a lot of Novell's defensiveness comes from the backlash launched at Novell last year when it was leaked that they were going to drop default deployment of the KDE desktop in some of their product line. The community, in particular their own SUSE development teams in Germany who historically put a lot of blood and sweat into KDE, raised a holy ruckus, and Novell ended up backtracking on their decision. But the damage was done: perhaps because of this incident, and likely others we know nothing about, several former SUSE executives have left the company.

I know how important it is to set your own agenda and corporate destiny and it would be foolish to expect that you don't have the right to dictate where you want your company to go. But you are not working in a closed system, Novell. It's open. Not only can people voice their opinions, they are going to want to.

Like any community, there are always going to be some people that are hard to deal with. Novell is not alone in their awkwardness in relating to various elements of the open source community. As I mentioned earlier, I have a lot of experience talking to executives and many of them at one time or another have confided in me off the record their challenges in community relations. Most of the time, these men and women are trying to make a genuine effort to bridge the gap and are just voicing their frustrations.

Coming out with public statements like these is a bit past voicing frustration. It's disrespectful and petulant.

If Novell wants to stay in the enterprise space, that's their call. Personally, I think it's a mistake to stay in just this arena alone, because it allows competitors to respond to your company on one front. By keeping yourself in one box, you just make it that much easier for someone to close the lid on you. But, far be it for me or anyone else to give Novell any constructive advice.

Let's not kid ourselves about Novell. They bought two open source companies, Ximian and SUSE, and they thought that would get them a lot of respect and clout. They have learned this is most definitely not true.

Needlessly angering a community that's full of potential developers, testers, and advocates for your products is not a good idea. Dictating the direction you think all of commercial open source should go and calling the community zealots? Better look in the mirror.

Believe it or not, Novell, many in the community want you to succeed. A commercially strong Linux is of great benefit to the whole, regardless of what market you decide to designate.

Don't go out of your way to alienate the community that can do you great good, if you'd let them.

Related Story:
CNET News: Novell Brands Its Own Open-Source Religion(May 10, 2006)