This would be much funnier if it wasn't so damn true. Ouch.
Sure Fire Method to Make RedHat Go Under...
This is not to knock the obviously well-intentioned and thought-out open letter but the recommendations given by this letter and much of the linux/open source community are guaranteed to result in the demise of RedHat which would be a terrible hit on developers (such as myself) and users alike (not to mention the market in general).
Everyone seems to be saying "If only linux/redhat/et al had this feature..." or "Linux would rule if it could run this software..." which finally amounts to asking linux, via RedHat, Inc., to be all things to all people which is why many of the formerly successful technical industry companies (Borland/Inprise, Novell, pre-Gerstner IBM, et al) collapsed. They were trying to emulate Microsoft (or their perspective of Microsoft) and went after a market that either didn't exist or required more resources than a company even as big as Microsoft would be able to break through.
While many are explicit about their comparison to Microsoft, even those who are not are obviously thinking about "destroying the monster" when they provide their advice. All due consideration to Gates & company aside (warrented or otherwise), Microsoft got to where it is today because of two things: 1) A big company going after a different market didn't want to be distracted by an adjunct market so it walked up and handed it to them. 2) Microsoft recognized the value of this, concentrated on its core business and waited till other markets developed on their own (i.e. by competitors) then capitalized on its base technology to make major inroads into these new markets.
Had #1 never happened its unlikely #2 would have ever been able to occur and create the behemouth we all know and love/loath today. Prior to #1, Microsoft was a relatively successful language developer shop not too dissimilar to Borland and would have likely been a very significant player even today but nothing like it is now thanx to that gift from above by one of the few companies capable of creating a new market like the PC industry. Had, instead, (assuming #1 never happened) Microsoft tried moving into server, desktop, et al markets simultaneously it would be gone or in the same shape Inprise is today (i.e. nowheresville).
What's the lesson here? RedHat needs to consolidate its success and let the other aspects of the business develop on their own before throwing significant resources at them (like the desktop market and joe user). Fortunately, RedHat seems to have figured that out all by themselves even without hiring me as their business strategy consultant (what were the odds of that happening?!?!?). RedHat is positioning itself to own the backend. Even with its (intentionally or otherwise) stealth business model (since one purchase of RedHat != one server install and many companies don't realize their current dependence on RedHat/Linux), linux, and thus RedHat, has already started showing up on the market ownership screens of all the industry watchers. With the IPO and new product announcements, RedHat has revealed its intentions for all to see buts its too late for the opposition cause they were long since penetrated ala Trojan Horse.
RedHat will continue its normal distribution that can be downloaded for free even though a significant percentage will continue to purchase new copies and updates. To protect against the inevitable reduction of this market (or, rather, its slowing growth), specialized distributions that focus on backend operations like eCommerce will become the focus of reoccuring revenues. RedHat is also capitalizing on the defacto association of Linux == RedHat. Companies will standardize on RedHat as their linux distribution and only accept compiled software RPMs for their version release. RedHat's stamp of approval for a piece of software will make that software viable in the marketplace. As more companies (open software and otherwise) recognize this and the market becomes more credible, RedHat will insure the kind of revenue growth that justifies its stock price (I'm looking for a split within 9 months - no I don't currently own any). All of this goes on with RedHat simply concentrating on its core market and not trying (ie, blowing lots of capital) to replace Windows and its apps on the desktop.
Even with all this, however, opportunities like Microsoft's #1 just don't happen any more, or do they? Well, not exactly and possibly not as profoundly but something along these lines could be coming down the pike. IBM created the Intel/PC market and Microsoft owns the software side (which is the most important part). Microsoft has failed to recognize fully the liability of this position as demonstrated by its inability to implement its technology for other platforms. The promised PowerPC/NT has never appeared (possible canceled?) and the Alpha platform is on the verge of being abandoned even though its the one area most likely to help NT or Win2K to scale up enough to compete with *NIX.
The promise of Open Source, Linux, and the RedHat business model is Platform Independence. Theoretically, a company developing code for Linux should be able to move it to any platform Linux runs on. RedHat's out there with Intel, SPARC, and Alpha support right now. As long as it makes it relatively inexpensive to move to new platforms it will automatically be positioned to own the software market for whatever hardware platform manages to create the next large market. I doubt I'm the only person who's noticed that Intel's latest chip offerings haven't exactly been meeting the potential of Moore's law performance/price-wise and pundits are already backpeddeling on the promises of the Merced architecture telling us to wait for the next chip after that! This is *really* bad news for Microsoft (who have enough problems just supporting the next Intel architectures) because its very expensive to port their core technology to new platforms plus, limitations of their architecture and general poor design of their apis has caused most successful software implementations on top of their technology to use Intel platform-dependent calls or operations that make the software difficult to port even if the Microsoft technology was available on new platforms.
RedHat's #1 gift giver could inadvertantly be Microsoft who has blown the PC industry into a market much larger than IBM ever imagined or, to the chagrin of their mainframe/midsize divisions, intended. The success of this industry has created new opportunities and new problems that require more scalable environments that the Intel boxes aren't meeting. Microsoft has created this market and given it viability but doesn't appear to be prepared to follow through on it. RedHat very well could be.
So, back to the letter, what advice given might help RedHat follow through with its strategy? I'll take it point by point.
1. "Dump resources into GCC"
I give it a 7/10. Yes GCC is critical and one of its great features is its flexible platform support. However, this is also a huge liability. Even more important would be getting support from other compiler vendors. The linux kernel has a lot of gcc-specific constructs (which has led to interesting "discussions" between Linus and the egcs team) that it might better do without. I think the ability to build RedHat with more than one compiler will help keep it on track. I am not at all suggesting the abdandonment of gcc but I'd like to see less dependence on a single product.
2. "Dump resources into a GPL Office Suite"
0/10. Wrong answer. Waste of development resources. There are other companies much better positioned to go after this market. Certainly RedHat should encourage this effort but more so by policy and improving their own technology to support such development rather than capital resources and direct development of such technologies. Remember that WordPerfect once owned the WP market. They could again as could some of the other existing or still-to-come contenders. This kind of effort is what killed Borland.
3. "Make what they have now work better"
10/10 intent, 4/10 execution. Tweaking their primary packages (from an admin/configuration perspective) to better integrate with their primary technology is absolutely the right thing to do. Taking on responsibility for Mozilla or other Open Source efforts would not only waste a lot of effort on distracting, non-core technology but would likely alienate many other developers/pundits who fear or are concerned about one distribution controlling such an effort. GUI environment selections are pretty detailed tactical decisions at this point and are therefor outside the scope of this debate.
4. "Subscription Plans"
4/10. This might be a decent idea as an option for people who want it but most big companies don't want every version/update. Internal standards for what versions of software will be deployed in the corporation and the relative slowness for the groups to upgrade make this option less attractive for the users who will be the main source of the new income.
5. "Improve RPM"
9/10. A RedHat package with the RedHat "Seal of Approval" is going to be the sign of a successful, viable, credible product from a corporate perspective. I hate RPMs and am strictly a .tar.gz (or bz) source kinda guy but that option's not going to take you corporate. A package mechanism of precompiled code that can help make installs safe, track licenses, help upgrade existing systems, and generally mechanize the admin process in a standard manner is a big win for RedHat. Maybe existing RPM technology can be extended to do this (I question this) but they need to do something (anything) that will.
6. "Aquire Cygnus or Borland"
2/10. Cygnus is into a lot of businesses, especially embedded platforms and development tools. The development tools might be useful but the fact is that RedHat offers little to leverage by aquiring the company and doing so would probably hurt Cygnus' credibility somewhat so this option doesn't fly. Inprise/Borland, by my computation, is about half the market value of RedHat (INPRISE is 50M shares @ $4, REDHAT is 6M shares @ $80) . I like Borland's development tools but they've got zero *NIX experience. Also, shortly before, during, and after the aquisition they incurred a huge brain drain (mainly towards Microsoft) of their compiler developers which is their biggest asset from a RedHat perspective. Some sort of relationship/investment to port tools to their platform could be a great benefit for both companies. Borland's not going to release their source so they need to work closely with a distribution vendor. Ownership makes no sense because of the existing and long-time-coming dependency Borland has on Microsoft platforms. Too distracting.
7. "Parner w./Hardware Vendors"
10/10. Gotta sign the deals. Get $50/cpu... oops, Janet Reno won't like that! We'll know we've won when we see a little RedHat logo button show up on our next computer's keyboard. Naturally, RedHat's already moving forward with this.
8. "Support the LSB"
7/10. Supporting the concept of the LSB is definately a go. The actual LSB or group concensus may be detrimental in the long run. The goals of many of its members certainly overlap but may also go against thos of RedHat's (and Linux') when its all over. Standards, especially those that encourage/enable platform-independence, are generally good. Getting a standard directory structure and boot/configuration script mechanism implemented is a great but small part of the whole effort. Gotta balance these things out and I think RedHat's comments/effort to this issue thus far have shown this desire.
CONCLUSION: Whew - I really intended to just hit on a few points and be done with it. I've seen a lot of "suggestions" (demands?) of RedHat and have formulated these options over the last several months. Most such posts were nonsense or so out of context that they simply didn't warrent replies. Robert's letter, even though I disagree with a significant portion, is the first coherent and thoughtful one that I have run across that justified and provided a foundation for me to "correct some incorrect yet reoccuring perceptions" so I hope he takes this as a complement more than a criticism.
PS: Please pardon any poor grammar or spelling as I'm typing this in as I make it all up... :-)