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Red Hat: Go big or play it safe?

Red Hat apparently feels like it needs to constrain its ambition to pacify stronger competitors. Why?

Red Hat appears to be held to a different standard than its peers, one that keeps it safe on a pedestal where it can do comparatively little damage to its competitors.

The reason seems to be that it's an open-source company, and open-source companies are apparently supposed to live lives of virginal purity and restraint. So, in response to my suggestion that Dell consider buying Red Hat, a friend countered, "But this would destroy Red Hat's hardware independence."

It's a good point, and one that is similarly raised whenever it is suggested that Oracle, IBM, or anyone else could be in the market for Red Hat. For example, I've heard it said that Red Hat executives are loathe to upset any database vendor by acquiring MySQL (before Sun did) or EnterpriseDB (PostgreSQL).

Unfortunately for Red Hat, companies like IBM and Oracle have no such qualms about stepping all over its businesses. It's unclear why Red Hat should have to resign itself to tiptoeing around conflicts with companies that would as soon crush it to powder if it grows too strong.

Except, of course, that Red Hat almost certainly doesn't want to risk getting squashed for letting its ambition outpace its ability to sustain it.

Yes, SAP, Oracle, IBM, HP, and others benefit from having Red Hat serve as a strong standard-bearer for Linux. But only if Red Hat never gets too powerful. That's why IBM has invested in Novell to shore it up against Red Hat, and it's why few are probably crying that Novell's partnership with Microsoft appears to be paying handsome dividends.

Red Hat is a useful partner for IBM, et al so long as it keeps to its place, and that place is as the eunuch in the palace, not as a challenger to the throne.

Red Hat is a for-profit company, not a nonprofit charity. While there are very real risks--to Red Hat and to Linux--if Red Hat were to lose its independent status, the reality is that someone at some point will buy Red Hat and, regardless, Red Hat has already thrown down the gauntlet to IBM and Oracle with its JBoss acquisition. Why not accelerate its ambition, so long as its resources can sustain it?

Could Red Hat be crushed by Oracle for entering the database market, for example? Of course. That's a risk. But is it any riskier than letting its competitors paint it into a profitable but relatively tiny niche in the industry?

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.