Red Hat throws itself out of the ring

At the risk of having this column renamed Red Hat Watch, I am once again compelled to write about developments at the successful open source company.

At the risk of having this column renamed Red Hat Watch, I am once again compelled to write about developments at the successful open source company.

Earlier this month I wrote about how Red Hat is demanding that smaller resellers of its Linux distribution remove all the company’s trademarks and copyrighted logotypes and other graphics.

The resellers are people who download the CD ROM ISO images, burn them to disk and sell the copies without fancy packaging and/or documentation, as Red Hat provides with the boxed retail copies of its Linux distribution.

Fair enough, some would say, as the smaller resellers do not contribute to Red Hat’s expenses; but it does seem to go against the grain of what open source is about – share and share alike. Well, it least that’s how it used to be.

Now, it appears that Red Hat is doing away with the retail channel altogether. Reports in OSNews and Linux And Main suggest that there won’t be another boxed Red Hat Linux on shop-shelves in the future.

Red Hat is apparently planning “extensive changes in [sic] its development and distribution model”; ostensibly because of the long lead time required to make the retail box sets.

There is some justification for this line of thinking: anyone who installs a copy of Red Hat Linux bought in a box or bundled with a book will find that the software is out of date and requires large amounts of security and system updates.

Why, then, would anyone bother to buy a boxed set of Red Hat Linux, especially since the documentation now comes in electronic form? The issue is compounded by Red Hat’s asking customers to pay for annual subscriptions to access the update servers in a timely fashion.

Another big change is that Red Hat will let developers have control over the various software packages that make up its Linux distribution. Currently, Red Hat developers put together and test the various packages, and add the occasional tweak. This has led to controversy in the past, such as with KDE 3.05 in Red Hat Linux 8.

At this stage, it doesn’t look like this move will affect direct downloads of Red Hat Linux. Directories for the latest beta, code-named Severn, are starting to appear on Red Hat’s ftp sites and mirrors around the world, albeit without read permissions. Presumably they will be filled with the RPMs and ISO images for the Severn beta.

As of writing this, Red Hat hadn’t officially announced the change of policy, but apart from the package management changes which appear to be driven by cost-cutting motives, it looks like the company is steering hard towards the corporate market.

Red Hat already has credibility in the enterprise sector, and probably feels that the retail sector has become a millstone around its corporate neck. End users who are reluctant to sign up for the Red Hat Network subscriptions and won’t pay for RHCE certifications and training probably look like a bad deal compared to corporate customers with money to spend on these issues.

Already if you take a look at the website, you can see the emphasis on providing enterprise-oriented solutions and training.

For Joe Open-Sourcer, interested in Red Hat Linux 9, there’s a piddly little “Community Products” section on the products page, which hawks the distribution in a decidedly low-key fashion.

That’s telling enough, and I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict the free downloads of Red Hat Linux will go away later this year, as the company chops off the end-user branch of its business, and hopes to shift its corporate bum to the enterprise one instead.

Personally, I think the shift represents a failure by Red Hat to maintain momentum as an operating system vendor. The message is that the company couldn’t make Linux attractive enough in the retail market, so now it will give it a go in the corporate one.

I am reminded of past “strategic shifts” by other newish operating system developers, whereby they realised they didn’t have the ability to support the market they originally aimed for, and shifted to another one. Those moves invariably failed, because the lucrative niche markets were stitched up tight long ago.

However, Red Hat’s gamble could still pay off: the Linux juggernaut is still heading towards the enterprise market with a full head of steam, so hitching a ride aboard it no doubt looks like a safe bet for the North Carolingians. And, the load is so much lighter without the pesky little end-users like yours truly, who have been aboard since 1996

Saarinen is an Auckland IT consultant and IDG contributor. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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