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Microsoft and Red Hat's iPhone moment

Microsoft and Red Hat have more in common than they suspect, or will acknowledge. But here's the fun part: Both are converging along similar business model lines.

Ubuntu @ Microsoft Matt Asay

If you were to try to think of the two most diametrically opposed software companies in the industry, Red Hat and Microsoft come to mind. One is the open-source leader, while the other has tenaciously held to its proprietary software background.

Red Hat believes that real customer choice comes from an open ecosystem of software. Microsoft believes something similar, but prefers customers buy into its own software ecosystem (Windows, SQL Server, SharePoint, etc.) and stay there.

And yet, something has brought the two companies together in a manner which suggests to me that both are converging in the way they view technology:

The iPhone.

Bringing PHP into the Microsoft fold Matt Asay

Walk Red Hat's Raleigh, N.C., campus and you'll see Apple's iPhone in the hands of an increasing number of Red Hat employees. Cross the country to Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus and you'll see the same thing. I've been to both campuses in the past few months and was surprised by the number of iPhones being used.

There is, of course, a very good reason for this, and it should send a ray of hope to those who believe that open source and proprietary software are destined to live out binary, partisan lives:

Both Red Hat and Microsoft employees ultimately are consumers and care more about what works than dogmatically clinging to The One True Way to use or sell software.

It wasn't always thus. Ironically, Microsoft and Red Hat have shared a common problem, though they have appeared diametrically opposed at a superficial level. The proprietary/open-source divide has sharply split the two companies, but even as Microsoft's cold war against open source is thawing so, too, has pragmatism crept in at Red Hat.

For Red Hat, the big shift came with its JBoss acquisition,

Microsoft's internal open-source education Matt Asay

which introduced the complexity of supporting its products on Windows (at least 50 percent of JBoss' downloads were on Windows) as well as business model difficulties: Brian Stevens, Red Hat's CTO, once told me that he wasn't sure Red Hat's revenue model would work above the operating system.

The further up the stack from the operating system Red Hat goes, the more it's going to have to work with non-open source components, just as its Linux server business has always depended upon supporting the industry's leading proprietary applications and databases.

Microsoft has the reverse problem. While it has occasionally forgotten that it's a platform company, Microsoft is a platform company and should welcome all sorts of software on that platform. That means both open and proprietary, as well as mixes of the two. The more Microsoft remembers the need to strengthen its platform, the more it will necessarily embrace open source.

Microsoft grapples with Linux. Matt Asay

See the pictures in this posting? They were taken while at Microsoft, not Red Hat. Microsoft knows it needs to figure out how to embrace open source.

This convergence is perhaps most easily viewed by the iPhone usage on both campuses, which suggests a pragmatism and affinity for "what works" that will increasingly see both companies abandon old dogmas and embrace customer realities.

This isn't to suggest that either Microsoft or Red Hat is going to drop their differences overnight and become indistinguishable in their strategies. But both are growing out of their binary perspectives on the world, and that's a very good thing for their customers and partners. In fact, I suspect that customers will ultimately drive out the bile and bitterness that has unnecessarily separated software that customers want to run together.

It's software, not religion. It matters, but not that much.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.