Red Hat is no Microsoft

eLABorations: But Microsoft may well have to be much more like Red Hat

As eWEEKs own Peter Galli reported earlier this week, Red Hats expanding prominence in the enterprise Linux market--coupled with skepticism toward UnitedLinux as a viable Red Hat rival--has some wondering whether the crimson-capped ones will come to dominate Linux, Microsoft-style.

While the parallel may be tempting to draw – the reign of Microsoft and its Windows operating system has tended to engender apprehension toward too-powerful software firms – I think its safe to say that Red Hat will not become the next Redmond.

Red Hat is an open source company, and the open source model severely restricts the sort of control that Red Hat can exert over Linux. They can be, and they are, a leader in the Linux community, but open source ensures that competition for Red Hat will always be close at hand.

For example, if Red Hat were to begin making life tough for its users or for application and hardware developers, their actions would create a space in the market for someone to fill. I could raid Red Hat-developed code from their FTP servers first thing tomorrow morning and get started on Jason Brooks Linux, the Linux that delivers real [insert design or business practice pledge here] for its users.

Mandrake Linux was based on Red Hats distribution, and SuSE Linux uses the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) format for distributing its software.

Red Hats business is built around building, maintaining and implementing software, and when its rivals include Red Hat code in their own products, it works to solidify Red Hats leadership position in the Linux space.

Far from Red Hat becoming the next Microsoft, it seems much more likely to me that Microsoft will eventually become more like Red Hat.

As with Red Hat, Microsoft is in the business of building software, and the software it builds delivers significant value to users. However, Microsofts software-smithing is too often overshadowed by a second, and sometimes conflicting, business principle: that of owning software.

Windows XP was a huge and technologically exciting software release, so it must have been disappointing for Microsoft to watch so much ink spill over peripheral issues such as Windows Product Activation, licensing schemes and middleware bundling suspicions.

Microsoft spends a lot of cash on research, and its got a ton of good people working there. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the folks most frustrated with Microsofts practices are Microsoft employees themselves.

Microsoft neednt exercise perfect control over the software it produces to maintain its leadership role in computing or even a healthy flow of profit.

Software, by its very nature, must be continually remade–not just to incorporate new features but to support new sorts of hardware and to become more secure and less buggy.

A company in the business of building and selling software will always be in the position to make money. Therell be plenty of reasons why people will want to continue running Microsoft code, with the biggest reason being that, on the whole, its damned good stuff.

Will the profits be Microsoft-in-the-early-days-of-personal-computing-type money? Probably not, but the advent of solid open source software alternatives has changed the playing field.

As the now well-worn saw goes, a piece of proprietary software, delivered in binary-only form, is like a car with the hood welded shut. An open platform such as Linux is fundamentally more developer-friendly than a closed one.

Long term, it wont take an act of government to ensure the widespread embrace of open source. The market--led by enterprise-trusted firms such as IBM, Sun and Red Hat--will migrate toward openness on its own.

Microsoft has remade itself before, and Im betting the firm is too smart not to do so again, at least eventually. After all, its possible to create free software and still succeed as a company, and even as a source of anxiety for your rivals. Just ask Red Hat.

Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at