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Red Hat, Sun deal reflects power shift driven by open source

Three years ago, a Red Hat-Sun pact seemed as unthinkable as a Novell-Microsoft partnership -- or World Series championship for the Boston Red Sox.The BoSox were down 0-3 games against the Yankees in the American league playoffs, Red Hat was eating up its Unix rival’s bread-and-butter customer base and Microsoft was paying Netware customers to defect to Windows.
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Written by Paula Rooney, Contributor on

Three years ago, a Red Hat-Sun pact seemed as unthinkable as a Novell-Microsoft partnership -- or World Series championship for the Boston Red Sox.

The BoSox were down 0-3 games against the Yankees in the American league playoffs, Red Hat was eating up its Unix rival’s bread-and-butter customer base and Microsoft was paying Netware customers to defect to Windows.

The rivalries were well established: Red versus Blue, and proprietary platform vendors versus open source vendors.

My, how times have changed.

Today, the competitive dynamic has turned on its head: proprietary (or once proprietary) platform vendors have forged partnerships with their Linux rivals.

The Microsoft-Novell is designed to improve interoperability of Windows with SUSE Linux but also is intended to slow Red Hat.

The Sun-Red Hat alliance, meanwhile, is designed to advance the adoption of open source Java – and slow down Microsoft’s .NET.

"Sun and Red Hat may not be the best of buddies but, even on their worst days, they have far more common interests with each other than with Microsoft," pointed out analyst Gordon Haff of illuminata. "Certainly both companies can agree that they’d rather see Java win than .Net."

Many of these highly publicized corporate partnerships are often more self serving for vendors and offer little value for the customer or partner.

But this is not true in the recent spate of deals between proprietary software giants and open source software companies. The corporate pairings as of late reflect the increasing mix of proprietary software and open source software, and proprietary software such as Java going open. More significantly, it underscores the fundamental role open source is playing in fueling a mammoth shift in the software industry: customers and developers are now calling the shots, not vendors.

Sun released Java and Solaris to the open source community some time ago. Still, the once proprietary giant has taken a fair measure of abuse in the community for allegedly making its licenses quasi-open, with strings attached. To some, Sun's open source program has been half baked.

Through its pact with Red Hat and the IcedTea project, though, Sun is transitioning into a more serious open source player, observers say. Open source Java now has a serious chance.

“Even if Sun open sourced chunks of Java last year, it has not been usable in any form other than educational purposes as it is missing various pieces. It was really the IcedTea folks from Red Hat and the community that have been filling the gaps so we can have an actual open source edition ready,” said Miguel de Icaza, a vice president at Novell and founder of the mono project. “It is sad that it has taken a year. But am glad that Red Hat is stepping up and helping fix that hole."

In this case, the benefits will be significant for end users, for Linux, and for Java, he contends. It’s not just a swipe at Microsoft.

“For end-users of open source distribution, it means the possibility of finally having Java and Java-based applications shipping as part of the OS. Sofar open source distribution have been reluctant to package the proprietary edition of Java based on not being open and not being able to patch I and tune it. We also consume Java, and we would also rather ship an open source Java than a proprietary Java (we are a bit laxer than other distributions and we do include proprietary Java already.

Today, it seems unlikely that Microsoft will embrace the GPL in any form or that Cisco or Oracle will open source their crown jewels. But it's clear that customers and developers have a lot more say in those matters, and that's driven to a large extent by open source. And that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

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