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Editor’s Note: Under the Deep Blue Sea

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

“There’s always a bigger fish.” –Jedi Master Qui-Gon
Jinn

I would be remiss if I missed an opportunity to expound on the
shenanigans raised by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s commentary
regarding Oracle and it’s relationship with Red Hat, Novell, and
Linux in general.

But honestly, after reading the interview he conducted with the
Financial Times, I find myself not caring very much. Because, like
so many others before him, Ellison has gotten Linux all
wrong–again.

It would be very easy for me to join the chorus and correct
Ellison on his perception: yes, Oracle is free to use any free and
open source software they like (as long as it’s in the confines of
the license for that software). But no, you can’t buy a Linux
company just to wipe it off the face of the Earth. In the open
source community, buying a software company doesn’t get you much in
the way of technology. Except for some of the custom APIs and other
intellectual property that Red Hat has built for big software
vendors like oh, say Oracle, most of Red Hat’s software offerings
are under the GPL. Which means if you buy Red Hat, what you’re
really getting for your money is Red Hat’s talent and their
customers.

One of those two things can disappear instantly. Don’t believe
me? Take a look at the German offices of Novell, and watch all of
the SUSE execs and staffers cash out their vested holdings and walk
out into other ventures. It’s happening, not in a flood, but in a
steady stream nonetheless. And, if the talent is gone, I can make a
safe bet that as soon as their contracts expire, quite a few
customers will be voting with their feet.

I could point these things out, but it honestly doesn’t interest
me right now what Oracle does in this space, not on the high level.
Oracle, to me, is a symptom of a larger problem. The problem of
proprietary vs. open source companies. Beyond what we have come to
expect from Redmond, it seems like the volume of vitriol from the
proprietary software vendors towards that which is open source has
gone way up in recent months. First we had SAP lobbing insults at
“immature” open source companies during the Open Source Business
Conference. Now Oracle has decided to take care of open source. In
between, we get the background noise of Sun and Microsoft
jeering.

Is it a critical problem? No, not really, Linux still has enough
technical strength to stand on it’s own. But I think the focus of
our relationships with proprietary vendors needs to change a bit.
When Oracle partnered with Red Hat, it was widely regarded a
powerful validation of Linux in the enterprise. Big, powerful
companies were getting together and laying the foundation for a
world where open and close software would be able to work in
peaceful harmony.

Let’s not kid ourselves, Oracle saw Red Hat as a tool and a
means to an end. And vice versa. The instant one company becomes a
detriment to another, they’ll be dropped. Call me a hopeless
idealist, because I wish that weren’t the case, but self-interest
will always dominate in the capitalist business world. An
open-source mentality will temper that urge, but it will never make
it completely go away. And if the company never had an open source
background to begin with, then the self-interest instinct will be
that much stronger.

I am not sitting here advocating that the open source community
stop doing business altogether with proprietary companies. That
would be a ridiculous idea, and completely unworkable. But business
relationships with proprietary firms should be approached wide
open. We’re dealing with companies that have the kind of CEO who
will make outrageous statements just to punish a former partner and
drive their stock price down.

And they call the open source community a bunch of
loudmouths.

If anything this week, Red Hat got a valuable lesson: there are
bigger fish out there, ready to shelter you or eat you whole. I
have little worry that Red Hat will be seriously hurt by all of
this hullaballoo. But it is a lesson open source companies would do
well to learn.

Proprietary companies have always treated open source vendors
like proprietary vendors, because that’s the only way they know how
to behave. Companies, to them, are commodities to be bought and
sold. But Linux is far beyond the confines of one company.
Eventually, the bigger fish will learn that the more they try to
swallow the smaller fish, the more empty water their jaws will
close upon.