Red Hat CEO urges rejection of lock-ins

Matthew Szulik says computing customers increasingly are rejecting proprietary products that lock them to a particular supplier.

Stephen Shankland
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Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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SAN FRANCISCO--Computing customers increasingly are rejecting proprietary products that lock them to a particular technology supplier, Red Hat Chief Executive Matthew Szulik said Wednesday.

"Customers are saying they want independence: 'I'm tired of one or two vendors that have a knee on my throat,'" Szulik said in a discussion on stage at the Vortex conference here.

Red Hat chiefly sells the Linux operating system, but it's moving to higher-level software such as application servers to run Java programs or directory software to manage digital identities. And it's keeping its open-source-only approach as it makes the move.

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"There are new opportunities up the stack. OpenMQ is a cool project," he said, referring to as-yet unreleased open-source server messaging software that competes with IBM's WebSphere MQ and Microsoft's MSMQ. "Customers are starting to recognize that the messaging decisions they made five or seven years ago may not be scaling."

Red Hat has profited handsomely from the adoption of Linux and related open-source software, reporting net income of $16.7 million on revenue of $65.7 million in its most recent quarter. Indeed, it has gained share over its top rival, Novell's Suse Linux, while others such as Mandriva and TurboLinux have failed to dent the company's dominance. But Szulik insisted that his company doesn't have or want that lock-in ability.

"I don't think control (over the customer) is good for the company," he said. Instead, "We want to be thought leaders, providing a stream of technology that customers willingly pay for before others can supply it."

And the Raleigh, N.C.-based company tries to work transparently: Those who want to see what's coming in the next version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux can simply look in the current version of Fedora.

Open-source software isn't easy for computing industry companies to adopt, and open-source programmers will detect less-than-genuine efforts by corporations to do so, Szulik said. "It has to be in the DNA of the culture in order for open source to work. People are smart enough to see through the rhetoric and the BS," he said.

Matthew Szulik

Part of Red Hat's value is providing something useful out of the chaotic world of open-source software. But there are limits, Szulik said. "I don't think anybody, even Red Hat, has any control over the open-source model. The best idea wins," he said.

One area where open-source software hasn't caught on widely is on personal computers, an area where Red Hat has a modest product aimed at a relatively narrow set of customers such as those manning the phones at call centers. Desktop Linux is a tough nut to crack, Szulik said.

"The desktop is like teenage sex. Everybody's talking about it, but nobody's doing it," Szulik said.

It's tough to unseat deeply embedded "legacy" applications from Microsoft such as Outlook and Exchange, he said. And in the United States, Microsoft's Software Assurance licensing program, which provides among other things software updates for a multiyear period, "has locked customers up for a period of time."