Red Hat: The one true open source company?

Red Hat exec's narrow definition of "open" excludes Oracle, IBM, Google, and Sun

Oracle boasts an extensive list of free and open source software, now more than ever with its recent acquisition of Sun. IBM is a key contributor to the Linux kernel and dozens of other high-profile open source projects. Google has released millions of lines of code of Android, Chrome, and GWT (Google Web Toolkit) for public use.

But none of the aforementioned companies nor their free offerings would constitute open source companies, at least as defined by Paul Cormier, Red Hat's president of products and technologies, in a recent interview.

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"I wouldn't even consider calling [Oracle] an open source company at all," Cormier said in a recent interview. "When you're making a choice as a company on what's open and what's closed then your customers suffer."

Beyond withholding key features from your customers, a true open source company doesn't limit who works on its code, Cormier argued: "OpenSolaris is not open. There is no community other than Sun people developing Solaris."

Is Cormier correct? Well, I doubt that IBM or Oracle would argue that they are, in fact, open source companies. After all, much of their bread and butter come from selling proprietary products (as well as services and support).

Sun, when it still existed, may have taken some issue with Cormier's comments, given its substantial open source software contributions such as the aforementioned OpenSolaris, Java, OpenOffice, and MySQL. Though it may be true that the developer community at large did not have unbridled access to every scrap of Sun's code, Sun deservedly earned a reputation for being an open source company. In fact, the company's demise can be arguably attributed to its habit of giving too much away.

But perhaps the best response to Courmier's claim of distinction as a truly open source company offering truly open code in a world as mere open source wannabes is "Get over yourself." Yes, Red Hat has succeeded in developing sustainable business model where it can sell licenses to open code for a low, low price -- then supplement its profits by selling services, maintenance, and support.

IBM, Oracle, Google, and the like have different business models -- profitable ones, at that -- yet they're also giving away open code for free. Saying they're not open source companies is technically accurate. However, saying the code they donate to the developer world isn't open is beyond inaccurate -- it's disingenuous and bordering on insulting.

And perhaps more important: Does it really matter how "open source" some code really is? You can argue the philosophical merits of purely open code until blue in the face -- but ultimately, what really matters is whether it works.

This article, "Red Hat: The one true open source company?," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.


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