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Microsoft spoiling for a Red Hat fight with Web apps on Linux

Software giant may now have the perfect way to put Red Hat on the defensive.

Microsoft is apparently going to support Firefox and Safari with its upcoming Office Web Applications (and, hence, Windows alternatives like Mac OS X and Linux).

Yes, those using Internet Explorer and Silverlight will have an enhanced experience, but this is an exceptional step forward--and smart business--for Microsoft.

But what does it mean for Red Hat?

Yes, Red Hat. I'm not suggesting that Red Hat's desktop business is threatened because today it doesn't have much of a Linux desktop business. Red Hat has chosen not to compete--at least, not much--on the traditional enterprise desktop.

That's not the point. The point is that if Microsoft succeeds in stepping beyond its closed ecosystem and opening up its technology to alternative platforms like Linux, Firefox, etc., it will eventually disrupt Red Hat's Unix and Weblogic replacement businesses. Today, Red Hat can clean up the wreckage of these overpriced and over-engineered markets. Tomorrow? Well, tomorrow becomes much more difficult if Microsoft outmaneuvers Red Hat by broadening its appeal beyond Windows.

Microsoft, in other words, is on the offense, not defense.

Not that this is the first salvo. Microsoft's patent-plus-interoperability deal with Novell is paying dividends for Novell, as The VAR Guy points out, and hence for Microsoft. That deal was Microsoft's way of painting a bulls-eye on Red Hat.

That deal has helped Novell but hasn't necessarily hurt Red Hat. A Microsoft whose technology fits into a wider technology stack, however, is potentially a much bigger threat to Red Hat because, in a way, it undermines one of Red Hat's (and, indeed, any open-source vendor's) primary selling points: choice.

By allowing would-be customers to choose Microsoft technology a la carte, rather than as a take-it-or-leave-it stack, Microsoft co-opts Linux. Once it has SharePoint, Office, or other applications running on Linux, it will have a much easier time leading customers to the "enhanced" experience with these applications on Windows.

So, what should Red Hat do? It needs to consider moving in on Microsoft's territory. The time to move is not when the Unix market has completely dissipated. It's not after JBoss has Weblogic and Websphere in retreat. By that time, Microsoft will be knocking down Red Hat's door.

It's time for Red Hat to go after Microsoft. The good news is that it will have plenty of allies. The bad news is that Microsoft is a much stronger competitor than Red Hat has had to face in recent times. Game on.