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Red Hat sews up Linux for hobbyists

The Linux seller plans to release a version of the open-source operating system for fans on Thursday, part of a move to split its product line to improve profitability.

Red Hat will release the first version of its hobbyist edition of Linux on Thursday, a company executive said, as the software seller tries to improve profitability by splitting its product line.

"It's coming tomorrow," John Young, vice president of marketing for Red Hat, said in an interview Wednesday. Red Hat had hoped to release the software, called Fedora Core 1, on Monday, but had to delay a few days because of a last-minute glitch, the Linux seller said.

Fedora is the first of a new line of fast-changing, more-experimental software from the company. It's the second phase of a transformation Red Hat began in 2002 to become more business-oriented and thus profitable.

"A lot of our customers want to make sure that Red Hat has a sustainable business, so they can be assured of support for the long haul," Young said. "What we're doing is creating two Linux distributions to meet the needs of two customer segments."

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The frequent Fedora updates are intended to help the company to rapidly mature its new technology. The next version, Fedora Core 2, will focus on the forthcoming 2.6 Linux kernel at the heart of the open-source operating system.

In earlier years, the Raleigh, N.C.-based company's product was called Red Hat Linux and was available as a free download. Red Hat sold the software in retail outlets along with instruction manuals, support, and services such as certification that hardware and other software would work with it.

But because that business structure didn't lead to profitability, Red Hat split its software into two lines, steering business customers one way and Linux enthusiasts another.

The support and certification--and a steeper price tag--comes with Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), while the free version becomes Fedora. RHEL will be updated every 12 to 18 months to make it easier for computing industry partners to match their products with the software, while Red Hat intends to update Fedora with the latest technology three times a year, Young said.

Another difference between the two versions is that Red Hat won't guarantee patches for security holes and bugs for Fedora. As reported in February, the company also is phasing out this "errata" support for Red Hat Linux--by the end of 2003, for many versions.

Some Linux users have fretted about the end of the Red Hat Linux era. But some are trying to fill the void, including the Fedora Legacy group, which hopes to provide updates for the software.

Young made it clear where Red Hat's priorities lie. "Maybe some number of customers are wanting full support and not willing to pay for it, and that's going to be a challenge that we face," he said. "We've got to build a sustainable business."

There are other challenges, though, such as that of educating Red Hat's users, Gartner analyst John Enck said. Many of those users were surprised and angered by a note sent out Monday to subscribers to Red Hat's update service. The note warned of the coming end of support for the Red Hat Linux, and some subscribers were irked even though Red Hat in February had published its plans to phase out the product.

Red Hat said users are beginning to appreciate the new strategy. "I think we're turning the tide on some misunderstandings. If you look at the message boards today, there's much greater awareness about what the Red Hat strategy has been," Young said.