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Editor’s Note: Novell Pot Meets Community Kettle

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)