Think Twice, Red Hat

by Andy Oram

The news reports today say that
Red Hat may be bought by AOL Time Warner, just as several years ago AOL bought Netscape. The analogy I'm making between Red Hat and Netscape is not a casual one; the history of AOL acquisitions shows that the two sides should be exceeding cautious about this odd lash-up.

About nine years ago, O'Reilly & Associates sold a service to AOL (before it caught the slightly bigger prize of Time Warner.) AOL management clearly impressed our negotiators as savvy go-getters; their success in recognizing the Internet's importance and leveraging the Internet to sell their own service was just one piece of evidence. Yet a year after we sold Global Network Navigator to them, it was dead.

I don't really blame AOL for giving up on GNN (and it would be ungrateful to do so, because they tendered O'Reilly & Associates a nicely sized payment and continued to contract with us to provide them with content for some time). After all, we sold GNN because we couldn't make a go of it ourselves. As the first Web site with original edited content, and the first to sell ads, it broke ground in too many new ways, and to fill the holes it created would require huge sums of money. AOL certainly poured in the money, and worked hard to revamp GNN's concept and look. They also marketed GNN the way they marketed themselves; scattering free disks like barley seeds in every available furrow. Still, the incident shows that AOL can't necessarily make a success out of new properties.

Netscape is even an bigger red flag for Red Hat. I couldn't find anyone at the time of the AOL purchase that could find a good reason for it. Apparently, AOL hoped to capitalize on the Netscape home page, which most Netscape users left as their default when starting up their browser.

That's about the flimsiest grounds I can think of for purchasing a whole company--along with the commitment to maintain and enhance its products. AOL hasn't learned the lesson (which the United States government also needs to learn) that hegemony doesn't win the prize in today's multifaceted world.

As with GNN, I feel grateful to AOL for trying to save Netscape. But AOL management failed to pick up the Netscape management's vision, and failed to offer an alternative vision of their own. They could still surprise us, but I think the suspense has gone on too long for a proper plot turn.

AOL bought CompuServe in 1998 and apparently has kept it successful, but so far as I've heard, it's not trying to make an impact on the world or try anything innovative.

Finally, of course, AOL merged with Time Warner. According to news reports, this venture also is stagnating. Connectivity and content don't seem to be as synergistic as all the large corporations think they are. And that's a good thing, because the carrier and the message should be under separate control.

Now, I can see what would attract Red Hat and AOL to each other. In addition to their common corporate enemy, they both recognize that Linux has a place in large corporations. Red Hat has already done about as much as anybody to legitimize and mainstream Linux; I imagine their vision can fit with the AOL world view.

So what should Red Hat look out for?

First, as GNN showed, an influx of cash is not guarantee of success.

Second, as Netscape has showed (so far), a business plan that calls for fast world domination is not a good match for a technological plan that involves a lot of experimentation and careful evolution.

Most important, Red Hat should worry about the conditions imposed on new technology by AOL and Time Warner. Will they want a Red Hat distribution to include copy controls? (I'm not sure how that could be layered on a free operating system, but Red Hat could die trying.) Will they expend too many resources trying to attack the Windows monopoly head on, rather than playing on Linux's unique strengths (and the ones it inherited from Unix) as a multi-user system, a server well-tuned for open Internet protocols, etc.?

I just think that Linux has more places to go than most of us now imagine. An independent and quick-thinking Red Hat will be free to go those places as well. I think some of those directions will not be where AOL or Time Warner want to go. If Red Hat is the one to suffer, I don't want the rest of the Linux community to suffer too.