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Innovation

One hat too big even for Larry's head

The Oracle boss is threatening to swallow the Linux distributor, but digesting it could be harder than he imagines
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Written by Leader on

While Chairman Gates has traded his megalomaniac persona for that of Uncle Bill the philanthropist, one of the old guard continues to be unapologetic in his Machiavellian manoeuvrings.

Oracle lacks the universal presence of Microsoft and so has escaped the full measure of opprobrium ladled out to Redmond. Perhaps interpreting this as licence, Ellison was on typical form at Oracle Openworld last week. His attack on Red Hat contained industrial levels of venom and misdirection, fireworks of the sort that hint at the full-scale siege tactics that netted JD Edwards, PeopleSoft and Siebel over the last year.

Although Oracle claims it can cut Red Hat out of the equation by launching its own version of the Linux distribution for free, with half the support costs, customers will take a lot of convincing. Customers will not want to recertify another Linux variant: the costs of doing so outweigh any discount Oracle can offer. Buying Red Hat outright would be a cleaner move and one that gels more readily with Oracle's recent acquisition-hungry past. Ellison's 'FUD'cast in no way precludes this: Red Hat's shares dropped by nearly a quarter the day he opened his mouth.

Even if Oracle succeeds in gobbling up Red Hat, digesting it is another matter. The database giant is still suffering dyspepsia after wolfing down CRM-maker Siebel earlier this year. Assimilating another company, especially one as culturally dissimilar as Red Hat, will be no easier.

Oracle's stressing how much cheaper it could support Linux for, compared to Red Hat, means it also risks highlighting how exorbitant its own software is. The real pain for Oracle customers is not the cost of supporting the OS but the database itself. Oracle may be inviting customers to ask more hard questions about its current pricing. It also risks inflaming some old sores: "Why is Oracle telling me how good it is at supporting someone else's software when it's not doing a good job with its own?" was one response.

The one sure winner from Oracle's machinations will be the open-source market itself. Even if Oracle takes control of the Red Hat codebase, it will have to give every development back to the community — which will make such use of it as it wishes. By binding the operating system closer to its corporate strategy, however, Oracle will continue to enhance and advance Linux's reputation across the board as a formidable enterprise player. It is a sign of the maturity and inherent soundness of the open-source model that it continues to have value for — and freedom from — the most carnivorous of the old school beasts, without any hint of betraying its philosophy.

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