There was a bit of grumbling about Red Hat at Debconf this year (along with plenty of grumbling about Ubuntu too). While I agree that the Red Hat Network legalese effectively makes RHEL a proprietary product, I think it’s important to give credit to Red Hat for the role they have played and continue to play in bringing Linux, GNU and the free software stack to the wider world.
Red Hat was, and remains, essential to the free software and linux ecosystem.
Most of the world’s computer users have never seen or touched a Linux environment directly. Yes, of course we all use it in the form of Google or Akamai or a WiFi base station that we installed ourselves last weekend… but in terms of actually staring at the keyboard and typing into a Linux console or X-Term, adoption is still very much in the low-single-digits. Which means that less than 1-in-20 people who consider themselves IT people have hands-on experience with free software. For most of those people, Red Hat “speaks their language”. Which means that they are far more likely to get their first taste of free software via Red Hat than they are, say, compiling their personal kernels from scratch.
And we all win, when Red Hat has a win.
Every Red Hat server installed at UBS is a win for Free Software.
Every Fedora Core 5 installation at a school is a win for Linus Torvalds, for me, for Ubuntu, for Debian and even for Richard Stallman.
Every time Red Hat gets a mention on CNBC or that stupid Cramer show that really should have died with the dot com bomb, it’s a win for Free Software.
Because people learn by taking single steps. They learn by tasting new ideas little by little and not getting burned. They learn that “Linux” works, is reliable, is predictable, and that not running Microsoft Office is potentially a feature because it also means that it does not run all those pesky macro viruses.
And they learn that “normal”, which they used to define as “Windows”, is just part of the full universe of options they have at their disposal.
That of course inevitably touches their curiousity bone… and who knows where they might actually end up – in Gentoo, in Ubuntu, in Debian, perhaps even in OpenSolaris-land. It doesn’t matter – it’s all GNU goodness. Even if they stick with Red Hat.
In the free software community, we are as likely to turn viciously on one another as we are to stand united. And that’s a big weakness for us, as a community. It’s too easy to get free software advocates, who agree on 99% of things, to shred one another over the remaining 1%. That just makes us a confusing place for new users – and a disturbing place for more corporate adopters. It makes it easy for proprietary software companies to divide and conquer the free software world. We divide spontaneously.
Instead, we should strongly affirm the things in which we all agree.
- Software CAN be Free (using Richard’s terminology) and therefor we believe it will ALL END UP FREE. And we’re committed to reinventing everything we need until the free software stack is a genuinely complete computing universe. We’re already pretty far along.
- Free software is not just cheaper. It’s BETTER. It’s produced using a better process attracting better talent and it evolves faster, resulting in better innovation. All of that adds up to great value.
If we keep reminding ourselves that we agree on all of that, then our disagreements come into perspective. Instead of criticism for Red Hat, I think it would be more constructive to remind ourselves of the things that Red Hat does for the free software community first – and then perhaps to talk about why we prefer another system, for whatever personal reasons.
Just off the top of my head, here are a couple of things for which all of us free software advocates have Red Hat to thank:
- When the EU was voting on software patents, it was the surprising sight of Red Hat and SUN jointly appealing for clearer thinking that tipped the scales in favour of the defeat of the motion.
- Red Hat has in many ways been the public vehicle of IBM’s major Linux initiative. Without Red Hat, much of that work would have had less “punch”, because Red Hat was able to encapsulate it into a platform that could be presented to traditional IT people. We’ve all benefitted from that punch.
- Red Hat was a leading proponent of GNOME, and to date has put far more active resources into the GNOME desktop even than Ubuntu. I do intent to match that as soon as Ubuntu stands on its own two feet, but until that time, hats off (har) to Red Hat.
- The NSA and Red Hat teamed up to make SE Linux feasible. Even though that hasn’t yet become widely adopted, it still was a crucial step in getting the Fed’s to treat Linux seriously in the data center – and that’s in turn brought a rush of hardware vendors and ISV’s on board.
There’s a danger in something we love to hate. It’s that we can forget to love it.