March 29, 2012, 10:48 AM — I am probably one of the least excited people in the open source community about Red Hat's surpassing of the $1 billion revenue milestone yesterday.
It's not that it's sour grapes or anything… for me, the sense that Red Hat would make this milestone was a bit inevitable, and I never really saw any real chance that they would fail to make this goal. Seriously, it would have taken a disaster to stop Red Hat's strong growth.
While I can see the value of celebrating milestones like these, I really wonder if this whole notion of basking in the reflected glory of Red hat as proof that an open source based company can Make It Big is a good idea.
"This billion dollar milestone is not only a win for Red Hat--it is a victory for open source advocates everywhere," wrote CEO Jim Whitehurst today on Open Source.com.
I get that we should be happy for Red Hat, I really do, but this continual promotion of the idea that open source companies are somehow "special" really needs to be reexamined. After all, open source wasn't the sole reason that Red Hat reached the success it is currently enjoying. Nor, I would argue, even a major reason.
Red Hat succeeded because it out-competed the competition with strong products, good service, and excellent value.
Which, I believe, is Business 101. You can substitute "Red Hat" for any successful company--any--in the previous paragraph and it would still be true. If you want people to pay you, these are the basic, core things that your company has to provide. Everything else is just window dressing.
Yes, open source is a part of Red Hat's success--it can't help but be interwoven in the tapestry of Red Hat. But let's keep in mind that when it comes to open source, Red Hat has taken a somewhat… unique approach to the way it chooses to participate.
- Red Hat was often accused of inserting proprietary hooks for its partners' software (such as Oracle, before Oracle went their own way with Oracle Linux) and has long been criticized for the way it deals with ISVs. Of course, a lot of that criticism was coming from Sun.
- Red Hat fundamentally changed the way commercial Linux distributions were developed with the split of Fedora Core and Red Hat Enterprise Linux in 2003. While this was not a bad move, per se, it did assert the "community-as-asset" mentality that still continues to pervade the attitudes of many commercial open source vendors. Along with this, there's the complete failure of the Fedora Foundation, demonstrating that for Red Hat, at least, the community will always be an asset, never an equal partner.
- Red Hat has historically resisted the Linux Standard Base and any other standardization project it could not effectively own. This is changing as they move into cloud computing, but only because they haven't yet dominated in this sector as they have in the Linux arena.
These are flaws, some valid, some perceived, and no one company is ever free of flaws. On balance, Red Hat has validated a lot of positive open source methodologies for product management and creation over the years.
But, in terms of business success, I don't think open source has validated Red Hat. That's not what open source does. Open source is a way to build, not a business model. As such, while it's great and all that Red Hat has hit their $1 billion revenue mark, talent, luck, and business acumen played just a much of a role in their journey.
For me, holding open source companies up as something special, where we're all amazed when they hit the big time, is silly, and just sets up open source vendors up as a target for competitors to slap around.
Long before Red Hat hit their billion-dollar mark, open source has proven itself time and time again as a perfectly acceptable way for a company to build a product or offer a service. Open source has afforded many new companies ways to build and innovate… but it is not some special way to do business.
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