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Red Hat Sees Education as Long-Term Investment

May 09, 2002, 14:30 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Michael Hall)

By Michael Hall
Managing Editor, Crossnodes

Networld + Interop, Las Vegas -- Red Hat has taken the first public step in a campaign it initiated last December to bring its software into public schools across the United States free of charge by announcing the K-12 Red Hat Linux Education program, a move that won't net the company any revenue, but which it sees as a long-term investment nonetheless.

Late last year, when Microsoft announced it had reached a settlement covering dozens of antitrust suits brought forth by schools involving a $1.1 billion software giveaway, Red Hat fired back with an offer to provide its own software to schools and a demand that Microsoft spend its money on computing hardware for the poorest school districts in the United States.

Pitching the company's new program, Red Hat marketing VP Mark de Visser called the $1 billion figure "totally bogus," pegging the sticker price for a single installation of Microsoft's Windows operating system and a copy of its Office product at $800, prices typically not paid for wide-scale installations.

As he called Microsoft's largesse into question, the executive also pointed to recent stories involving the Redmond company's attempts at enforcement of its software licenses, which have involved audits through the company's somtime-proxy, the Business Software Alliance, and assorted fines that have ranged into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Further agitating school districts already concerned about possible non-compliance in their often under-supported deployments, sis confusing language recently discovered on Microsoft's web site (subsequently altered) that implies it is illegal to remove software originally shipped with a given computer, something de Visser characterizes as "hardly an innocent mistake" that "put a lot of people on alert."

Under Red Hat's program, seven county school systems in North Carolina will be outfitted with Red Hat Linux for their networks, as well as a dedicated support contact within the company, and access to a special channel of the Red Hat Network, the company's fee-based support services, that provides a thin-client-style installation for desktop machines. Red Hat will also provide some training to technicians from each of the districts.

As far as the actual cost to Red Hat for running the program, de Visser declined comment, noting only that a year's subscription to Red Hat Network services costs approximately $60 per year and that Red Hat Linux, the company's core product, "has a tendency of being given away anyway."

If all goes well with the seven-county pilot, de Visser said the company hopes to expand to a statewide, then nationwide level.

Capturing a piece of the education market isn't a new strategy for technology companies. As early as the late 1970's, Apple not only agressively pushed its Apple II-series machines to educators but tried to push national legislation through that would have netted it a tax break for donating machines to schools. The legislation was defeated, but the strategy has lived on in the form of a wisdom has prevailed among many in the tech industry that capturing the loyalty of students early on is a key to later sales as those students graduate and move into decision-making positions. That strategy is reflected in numerous free or dramatically reduced-price copies of everything from operating systems to Web design software to computers themselves on college campuses.

de Visser said a similar benefit will accrue to Red Hat if the program goes well, in that students coming from schools participating in the program will acquire "a good body of knowlege about Linux moving into the workforce."

A secondary benefit, according to de Visser, is the possibility that a growing sense of momentum for Linux in schools will push for development of software crucial to their operation. Besides software typically associated with education, such as multi-media language instruction or arithmetic and reading software dressed up as games, schools are dependent on highly specialized software that does everything from tracking daily attendance to arranging class schedules at the beginning of each year. Much of that software, which can run upwards of $10,000 up front with support costs in the thousands per year, has yet to appear for Linux. de Visser said Red Hat has begun the process of identifying vendors of such management software to approach as momentum builds.

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