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Red Hat sees no threat in UnitedLinux

Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik explains how the Linux distributor plans to go it alone, and why there is no point in its joining the UnitedLinux effort.

Top Linux seller Red Hat may be newly profitable, but the company continues to face competition from rival vendors--especially the UnitedLinux consortium.

To combat the challenge from UnitedLinux--a partnership of SuSE, SCO Group, Turbolinux and Conectiva--Red Hat has become more aggressive in the corporate marketplace, readying "advanced" versions of its server and workstation products that it also hopes will help it take on Microsoft's Windows operating system.

Lower costs are frequently given as a reason for customers to switch to Linux. But while cheap Linux-based desktops have been popping up at retailer Wal-Mart, the case is a bit harder to make on the corporate side. A recent study put out by analyst firm Meta Group claimed that the purchase of a Linux version for use in a professional environment can cost as much as Windows 2000 or Unix. Cost advantages were most noticeable when compared to Unix systems running not on Intel PCs but on RISC systems such as Sun Microsystems's Sparc or IBM's PowerPC.

In the run-up to the CeBit trade show in Germany, ZDNet Germany caught up with Red Hat chief executive Matthew Szulik to talk about Sun, UnitedLinux and the battle for the desktop.

Q. What chance does Linux have on desktops in general?
A: Red Hat has an excellent chance to compete on future desktops. We see an evolution away from the fat client to the thin client, to where functionality is delivered on an as-needed basis, where that functionality can be fulfilled through a browser, and to where security and manageability are a priority for the user and administrator.

The Meta Group portrays one of your main allies, Sun, as simultaneously also being your greatest competitor. How would you define your relationship with Sun?
Red Hat's market focus is to deliver our low-cost, high-value proposition to the enterprise marketplace. In many cases this means replacing expensive RISC/Unix machines with those from our partners Dell (Computer), HP and IBM. These efforts make a relationship with Sun distant at best.

How is Red Hat working together with Sun? There was some confusion--in August, at the LinuxWorld conference held in San Francisco, Sun CEO Scott McNealy was rather unclear. Sun wants to develop a new distribution based on Red Hat--is this correct, and if so, in which phase of development is the project?
Sun developing a non-GPL'd (General Public License) version of Linux would not surprise me.

If Sun is not your greatest competitor, then who is--Microsoft or other Linux companies? To put it another way: In which market segment do you want to gain ground?
Our biggest task is educating the marketplace that open-source software is more reliable, more secure and more affordable. The large proprietary OS software companies will struggle with the economics and value of the open-source/Red Hat model. We continue to make significant progress in corporate environments and businesses that want the reliability and value associated with Red Hat products and services in comparison to the expensive proprietary alternatives.

How are you positioning yourself against UnitedLinux? What arguments in favor of Red Hat can you offer against the team consisting of SuSE, Turbolinux, Conectiva and SCO?
We are focused on customers and making customers successful. We have always believed that with an increased number of financially successful open-source companies, the greater the opportunity for all open-source businesses. So our position is as a supporter of their efforts.

Were you asked to be part of the UnitedLinux team? Were there any negotiations?
We were asked to be a part of UnitedLinux team hours before their public announcement.

Would it not be advantageous to be part of UnitedLinux? SuSE's chief executive Richard Seibt has said he is waiting for your phone call.
Advantageous to be a part of UnitedLinux? I do not see the fit or advantage to our customers.

Do you consider UnitedLinux's move to try and establish a "standardized" Linux distribution to be a mistake?
I enjoy risk-taking, and the UnitedLinux plan is filled with risk--I compliment them for their effort. But it takes more than risk to compete with multibillion-dollar competitors, service customers globally and develop software with demanding business partners--while meeting the expectations of shareholders. So, if UnitedLinux can deliver on these plans, their risk will have been worth taking.

ZDNet Germany's Dietmar Muller reported from Munich.