Thursday, December 25, 2008

The beam in their eye

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Mathew 7:3, KJV Bible
It seems great blood sport to report on the problems of Novell while ignoring the larger problems with those companies deemed worthier than Novell. So in the interests of "fair and balanced" reporting, lets look around the Linux world at a few of the other major players.


Let's start off with Redhat. Everybody loves Redhat, and for good reason. They are the only major Linux distributor that makes a decent profit and has a good share price, even in this market. Redhat reported Q3 results of $165 million, up 22% from the same period a year ago. Redhat has shown consistent growth for years, concentrating on the server side of the market and services for the server side. It has stayed away from the desktop, having publicly walked away from the consumer Linux desktop when it stopped selling Redhat 9 five years ago and merged it with the Fedora project. Redhat continues to keep consumer desktop Linux at arms length, saying in April of this year that it would wait at least another year before releasing Redhat Global Desktop. What desktop Linux Redhat does sell is in their RHEL line, workstation software targeted at businesses and designed to better integrate with their server and back-end products. Redhat's business strategy is a consistent business winner and popular with their existing customer base, as over 82% of existing customers renew their subscriptions. And their success shows no end for the foreseeable future. Redhat requires no "phone home" policy, has no "Linux Advantage" registration to run (or else), no lock-in. Customers choose Redhat to start and continue to choose Redhat because they want to, not because they have to.


While everybody loves Ubuntu, that love hasn't translated into cold hard cash quite the way it has with Redhat. Mark Shuttleworth, the head of Ubuntu, reported in late October that "Canonical is not Cash positive... I think we could be cash positive if we focus on the core and scaled back." Furthermore Mr. Shuttleworth was also quoted as saying that "We continue to require investment and I keep being careful with my pennies making those investments." And finally, to underscore what Redhat admitted all those years ago, Mr. Shuttleworth further stated "We can't make money selling the desktop that's why we focused on a zero licensing cost business model. The only way to build a business on Linux is to focus on services." And all this in spite of Dell's inclusion of Ubuntu on "specific" notebook, netbook, and desktop models.

This was in stark contrast to what St. Shuttleworth said in July, when he exhorted the faithful to not just emulate but "blow right past Apple" in an attempt to produce a better user experience on the desktop. This is tacit acknowledgement that regardless of the desktop selected, the Linux desktop isn't yet suitable for the general user public. That's why Apple continues to gain marketshare and Windows continues to hang onto what's left. I've always been suspicious of the "success" of Ubuntu on Dell systems; if Ubuntu was that successful, then Mr. Shuttleworth and the Linux blogoshere would be trumpeting Ubuntu's sale numbers to the heavens. Instead, we have nothing but silence punctuated at odd times with "two year plans" to enhance this or that feature.

What's more, Apple's continuing success casts two great GNU failures in the harsh light of reality:
  1. OS X is Unix (BSD APIs and userland) under the pretty desktop, which shows that you can have a great usability and beauty running on a solid Unix OS, something which no distribution to date has achieved and which also illuminates Window's raison d'être for the great lie that it is, and
  2. It's kernel is based on Mach. Remember the Hurd, GNU's attempt to create its own OS? Hurd is for all intents and purposes dead and buried, while RMS attempts to re-write history and hijack Linux by calling it GNU/Linux ("We developed the GNU operating system (often inaccurately called 'Linux')").
What caught my eye from the Mr. Shuttleworth's July talk in Portland was this incendiary comment: "It's essential that we figure out how to work with Windows." Oh My Goodness. Will we see another variant of the Microsoft/Novell deal? Will we see a new site, Boycott Ubuntu? Only time will tell


Mandriva, formerly Mandrake, produces an excellent distribution, one that I've used until very recently and enjoyed since first installing Mandriva 2008 late in 2007. The problem with Mandriva is its perpetually bad financial state. Mandriva, as MandrakeSoft, was in the French equivalent of Chapter 11 from February 2003 to March 2004. It has always struggled to meet investor expectations, especially when compared to Redhat. Financials have gotten so bad again that the current Mandriva management team have pink slipped Adam Williamsom, one of their better-known evangelists and a good public face to the company. As I've noted before ever time Mandriva gets in a bind the quality of the company and its product tends to suffer, which only goes to reinforce a downward spiral.


No one in the Linux community should be throwing stones, considering just how thin-walled all the glass houses are right about now. Blame Microsoft all you want, but a lot of the pain and suffering that Linux distributions and companies are undergoing right now are due as much to self-inflicted actions as they are to external forces. Watching Microsoft over the years, history documents that Microsoft succeeds by exploiting their competition's self-inflicted weakness and their blindness towards the harsh truth of the marketplace. Yes, Microsoft's a bunch of ruthless bastards, but they're an extremely intelligent bunch of ruthless bastards.

Of all the Linux businesses, only Redhat seems to fully appreciate this and to plan accordingly. Redhat succeeds with a strong focus on customer satisfaction and product support for businesses; that's what brings in the money and allows them to keep their doors open.


  1. Interesting read.

    My only observation is -- is the desktop even profitable anymore? Even for Microsoft. Vista has been a marketplace disaster. So the billions they spent developing Vista have not seen payback.

  2. It was never profitable. Once Apple and later Microsoft staked it out and became established it was Game Over. At least Redhat had the good sense to finally realize this and move on.

  3. The reason people get so worked up about Novell is that it's considered a moral / ethical issue, which most people will always find important at a deeper level than operational / financial issues. The fact that Mandriva or Canonical don't make money might make people say "well, I guess they might have management or product placement issues", or something. It doesn't make them feel like someone's committing a fundamental breach of moral or ethical standards, which is how many people feel about Novell.

  4. There will always be issues with the "moral/ethical" argument. Specifically just how "moral" and "ethical" the arguments really are. Novell is an interesting case. On the one hand they were once the fair haired hero for helping to critically derail tSCOg's attempt to lay claim to all of Linux and subsequently monetize it. On the other they made the business decision to use Microsoft to help sell SLES and get a decent Linux distribution in front of more customers, especially in Windows shops. Novell is in the business of selling Linux and Linux-based services, and of making money. Especially making money. Outside of clubbing baby seals (or penguins) I really don't care how they do it, even it if means using Microsoft to help sell more Linux.

    Novell isn't "committing a fundamental breach of moral or ethical standards", especially when compared to Microsoft.


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