Red Hat Linux Desktop Moves: Calculated Strategy

Monday May 5th 2008 by Roy Schestowitz

Some have voiced concern at Red Hat’s move to deemphasize the desktop, yet it’s a strategy that should be seen in a larger context.

Recently, Red Hat announced that it would not pursue the consumer desktop market for the time being. Immediate reactions were almost as misinformed as those which followed the announcement made by Wal-Mart last month — an announcement that only meant to say that GNU/Linux PCs would be sold online but not off the shelf.

The latest announcement from Red Hat was neither very significant nor should it have much impact on desktop Linux as a whole. Red Hat pointed to consumer desktop dominance by an operating system behemoth called Microsoft. The more significant problems Red Hat was facing are probably competing GNU/Linux distributions.

Plenty of Choice Available

An important factor, momentum — often closely related to user base — has over the years meant that there were leaders and underdogs in the GNU/Linux arena. Some distributions were perceived as a safe bets, whereas others were seen as a hobby, or simply derivatives that add nothing of significant value to surpass or even complement existing offerings.

Different vendors that produce GNU/Linux distributions distinguish themselves in subtle ways, but they all work together. They work collaboratively most of the time, despite their separate release schedules. One misconception is that each distribution of GNU/Linux is a case of reinventing the wheel. In reality, however, many groups just contribute specific refinements to the very same ‘wheel’, especially where subjective judgment is involved or the needs of prospective users vary. Modifications get shared, so nothing prevents one distribution from trivially mimicking another. Reuse makes it a minimal effort, too.

Red Hat’s Race for the Desktop Still On

Red Hat’s indefinite postponement of a consumer desktop product was not the end of the world and probably the fruits of sound judgment. I will touch on reasons for this later on. It was not as though Red Hat created a product from scratch, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing it and then scraped it. Red Hat merely pondered joining a desktop development wave that had already progressed for over 15 years. Red Hat was just a part of it and improvements made to server products affect the desktop (also vice versa).

GNU/Linux desktop products will continue to evolve quickly with or without Red Hat (and the company is continuing with its Enterprise Desktop at any rate). A large pool of paid and unpaid developers will be applying many improvements to the desktop. There is no hibernation in terms of progress because developers typically take the lead depending on who is likely to capitalize or reap the most in terms of gains. There is a great deal of overlap. When Red Hat is prepared to enter this market, the codebase on which it relies will have matured further. Staying out means not freezing development but merely waiting for a more promising window of opportunity, a better timing perhaps.

Frienemies Take the Lead

Red Hat did not state this explicitly, but its development partners, essentially some fellow Linux vendors, were eating its lunch – at least partially. But it’s reciprocal nonetheless. Several months ago Red Hat’s CEO responded to Chris Pirillo, a Microsoft MVP, who asked him about Canonical. Red Hat’s management seemed to suggest at the time that patent-protected media codecs gave an advantage to Canonical’s GNU/Linux distribution, which is called Ubuntu. Red Hat also insinuated that Ubuntu’s careless approach when it comes to codecs gave them an unfair advantage.

Red Hat assigns to the GNOME desktop environment quite a high priority, as does Ubuntu, so what is there to visually distinguish between those two? How can one Linux vendor brag about perceived or actual added value? Ubuntu has become almost synonymous with Linux on the desktop (sometimes treated as de facto standard) just as Red Hat is quite synonymous with Linux servers for the enterprise. It can all change in the future because distributions rise and fall all the time, as measured in terms of their various public rankings.

Returning to codecs, Red Hat is a large company that is publicly traded, so it must be prudent when it comes to legal matters. Last year it was reported that Red Hat approached Microsoft to discuss only codecs, but Microsoft insisted that Red Hat should sign a deal involving software patents. Red Hat was not foolish enough to accept such as offer. This happens to be just one among several reasons, on the face of it, for Red Hat’s withdrawal from its consumer desktop plan. Fedora, the community version of Red Hat’s GNU/Linux distribution, does not suffer from the same risks. Many people do not have the same requirements. And to whatever extent they do, they already have Fedora and other so-called 'community distributions'. The consumer market's needs are very different from that of the educational market, for instance. To give a timely example, recently Brazil decided to migrate to Debian GNU/Linux for over 50 million students.

Generation Gap and Education

I have discussed competition from other GNU/Linux distribution, but there is a lot more to this story. There is another great barrier that is related to perception and procurement practices. There is quite a famous story from Russia about legal handling of software, where the distribution of Fedora is seen as ‘illegal’ if you don’t pay for it. Another obstacle is related to perception, which older generations, being more resistant to change, find harder to reconsider.

That’s where education and a legal reform come into play and Red Hat has been doing some work on this recently, especially in eastern Asia which is receptive to change and not just because existing copies of proprietary software there are sometimes not licensed.

The Desktop Isn’t Dead Yet, But…

It was several months ago that Adobe declared a “sea of change,” to paraphrase an old but famous quote from Bill Gates. Adobe foresees the migration of all software to the Web over the next decade. Since then, not only has some of Adobe’s software made contact with the Web (server side) but other companies did so as well, with great success in fact. Google and Salesforce are large-scale examples of this growing trend (which even attracted long-term opponents like Microsoft, which now touts Live-branded services). Many such companies have their infrastructure powered by GNU/Linux and Free software at the bottom layer of the stack. Content can be delivered not only to full-blown desktops, but also to mobile devices, which are predicted to have an increased role as their functionality and usability is further improved.

Industry observers could argue about the declining role of the desktop not just as a convenient excuse but also as an assertion which is backed by evidence, including a recent study that shows desktops getting replaced by mobile devices, at least in Japan. Hence any desktop vendor would be wise to concentrate on fields where they excel and where they are profitable.

If we were to consider companies where the impact of lost focus truly shows, Microsoft would be one. Two of its divisions account for almost all of the company’s profits, whereas some of the newer divisions lose significant amounts. Some even see the company as paralyzed by scale — a claim made by a departing key employee, Niall Kennedy. It’s wise to defend one’s ‘bread and butter’, or as some would put it — the cash cows. Red hat could learn from Microsoft’s strategic mistakes and failures, which long-going success in a few profitable divisions tends to eclipse.

At this stage, neither Ubuntu nor Red Hat can penetrate the sector of mobile devices because the space is already very crowded with lesser-known specialists and integrators, from device manufacturers to large companies or consortia that make use of existing components. Many of them use Linux, but not the same Linux that is found on the desktop, although this might be bound to change over time. Only last week, Andrew Morton, the maintainer of an important Linux branch, called for an embedded/device branch to be considered.

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