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Red Hat upgrades its mission

The software company has changed its mission statement to focus on involving outside communities in the development of open-source value.

Red Hat has long been the big Kahuna in open-source software, but a new mission statement points to an even bigger role for the company.

Red Hat has long billed itself as "the defining technology company of the 21st century (seeking) through (its) actions (to) strengthen the social fabric by continually democratizing content and technology."

It's an ambitious vision, but it's a bit vague, and it arguably leaves an important constituency out: customers.

A new Red Hat mission statement, which I found on the restroom wall at the company's Massachusetts office (No. 867-5309 for Red Hat, apparently), is a bit more concrete--and exciting: "To be the catalyst in communities of customers, developers, and partners creating better technology the open-source way."

There are two things that stand out with this mission statement. The first is that, judging from the memo, which was sent out recently by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, development of the mission statement was a companywide effort, which is impressive. This wasn't a top-down executive decision.

The second is even more impressive, evoked by the language of the mission statement itself. Red Hat sees itself sowing the seeds of the next big phase in open-source development: customer involvement.

This shouldn't be a surprise, given Whitehurst's public pleas for enterprise IT to become more involved in the open-source communities from which they currently derive benefit. It's hard to underestimate just how potent this could be.

Michael Tiemann, a Red Hat executive and president of the Open Source Initiative, recently chided me for suggesting that proprietary add-ons to open-source software is the winning business strategy, going forward.

While I still believe a pure-play open-source business is difficult to scale, if Red Hat can position itself successfully at the nexus of enterprise IT contributions to open-source communities, it will win the 21st-century enterprise software market and make a huge mountain of cash in the process. If Red Hat can get enterprise IT involved in its mission, the game is over, and Red Hat wins.

The key will be figuring out the motivations for enterprise IT to participate as co-developers in open source, and not merely consumers, as Dan Woods recently pointed out in Forbes.

Red Hat also needs to figure out how to remove patent hurdles, as it discussed recently at the Southern California Linux Exposition. Red Hat's mission statement offers motivation to accomplish this.

If it succeeds, Red Hat will become the biggest enterprise software company in the world: a hegemon without the Justice Department trials of the last software hegemon.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.