% fortune -ae paul murphy

Microsoft to buy Red Hat? Say it haint so.

In Paris, Ontario, there's a large plaza sign advertising both The Paris Sleep Laboratory and the Canadian Post Office. The synergy there, of course, should be obvious - at least from the point of view of the humorist. Recent revivals of the idea that Microsoft might want to take over Red Hat have a similar quality to them.

As David Berlind recently pointed out in his piece Is Microsoft considering acquisition of Red Hat? Microsoft could see Red Hat's acquisition as a nice way to undermine IBM, but might not consider that a sufficient reason to do it. That, of course, is Microsoft's perspective, but what about Red Hat's? This is a company, remember, that wants to be Microsoft and, like Microsoft, makes its living packaging and selling other people's ideas.

From Red Hat's perspective this could be a marriage made in heaven -offering both a defence against the two greatest strategic threats it faces and a graceful way for key players to fold their tents and steal away into the night.

The biggest threat Red Hat faces right now is that IBM could settle with SCO and then release its own Linux along with workstations and servers based on the cell processor. With SuSe essentially out of the picture, Linspire in a world by itself, and Debian not getting the press it deserves such a move by IBM would leave Red Hat with nowhere to go except a suicidal head to head competition with Microsoft in the x86 marketplace. Given that Cell outperforms x86 by an order of magnitude and doesn't have the security weaknesses built into the x86, this would leave them fighting to hold an ever decreasing share of a shrinking market.

The second most important threat facing them is that an IBM Linux on Cell offering gives the Linux and general open source communities an opportunity to rebel against Red Hat's pretence of selling support with free licenses rather than licenses with free support. Since that's the fundamental underpinning for Red Hat's business model, taking it away would obliterate the company.

Getting acquired therefore makes sense as Red Hat's Plan B -but Microsoft's Plan B has traditionally been Plan A delayed a few years and I can see no reasonable business scenario under which the acquisition makes sense for them. What would make sense for Microsoft, in contrast, would be a technology sharing arrangement with Red Hat in those areas, like identity management, where doing so would assert Microsoft's freedom of action without actually contravening the letter of its settlement agreement with Sun. That would neatly leverage Red Hat's traditional anti-Sun stance as a balance against its own uncomfortable relationship with the people it fears most, at the cost of giving Red Hat some positive press and incurring the risk of being named in a few more GPL lawsuits - in other words, a deal with nothing but upside for Microsoft.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.