Adapt-or-perish

Oracle, RedHat, Novell, Microsoft - is this the corporate equivalent of Survivor?

It's been a classic month of adapt-or-perish in the technodrome. Just when I feared the arena of technology was getting dull, the corporate equivalent of Survivor pops up to keep me entranced.

Let's start with Oracle, who now offer the world "Unbreakable Linux" (depicted on their website as the Linux penguin in body armor). The Oracle move--heralded by some as an attempt to gut RedHat and by others as the dawn of Oracle Linux--is an attempt to control the platform by providing stacks of compatible applications for users. Oracle can now offer a clear and supported path for their clients who wish to run both Oracle and Linux and derive support from one vendor.

I doubt the low price offer for enterprise support was intended to squash RedHat, but it will tempt existing Oracle customers to consolidate and simplify. Will we eventually see Oracle-flavored Linux? Let's put it this way: The door is now open, Oracle's just waiting to see who walks through.

Even more surprising than the Oracle announcement though, was the surprise entwinement of Novell and Microsoft-perhaps the most shocking moment since that photo of Scott McNealy and Steve Ballmer buddying up.

Novell's been taking heaps of abuse in open source circles since this news went public. But from where I stand, while this might be bad PR, it's good business.

Let's face it: although SuSE is really a nice distro, Novell has been showing signs of being lost in the open source wilderness. This latest move is an attempt to get a foot back on familiar turf. Partnering with Microsoft may seem a bit out of character for the firm, but given the circumstances it seems a wise move-and its stock jumped 10 percent on the news.

The bad press Novell received is symptomatic of being the "first one in the pool." The open source idealists in the crowd can complain all they want: there will be others joining Novell in the pool before long. I don't think this move won't add much to the long-term competitiveness of Novell, but they get credit for being the first one to make it work.

Looking at the underlying structure of the Clippie-Meets-The-Penguin deal, you quickly start to appreciate the legal complexity of what has been done. It's the licensing terms and the covenants not to sue which are causing concerns in the open source community. There are fears that this deal somehow "violates the spirit of the GPL," as one commentator put it.

Last time I checked, spirit violation wasn't sufficient to break the GPL and like it or not, it appears that the legal eagles have a found a clever way to preserve the integrity of GPL code while at the same time protecting a proprietary software package. One would hope that the legal resources of Novell and Microsoft were fluent enough with the issues to realize that the letter of the GPL had to be respected, else the whole premise falls apart in very short order. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings here, but the spirit of the GPL may be too ethereal to have much sway in the business world.

From another angle, the fact that this deal has been done at all should help put the whole FUD approach to combating open source into perspective. It may be tricky, but clearly a traditional corporate can interface with an open source offering without having to sacrifice all their IP rights.

However I look at this I keep reaching the same conclusions: (1) It was inevitable; (2) it will give users more choices; and (3) it won't be nearly so scary sounding in three months. The only thing that bugs me is the voice in my head that keeps repeating, "That's right....come to Daddy...."

Ric Shreves is a partner in Water&Stone, a firm specializing in open source content management systems. He speaks and writes frequently on the subject of Internet technologies in general and on open source in particular. Contact him at ric@waterandstone.com

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Ric Shreves

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