WASHINGTON — A Microsoft executive’s recent quip about the purportedly un-American characteristics of non-proprietary software did more than send open-source fans into a tizzy. It also sent companies supporting the Linux operating system a clear signal: You’ve become important enough for Microsoft to attack directly. Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik said that his company is usually apolitical, but he’d relish the chance to wrangle with Microsoft execs in Washington, D.C. — and tell Congress why the feds should not shy away from open-source software but instead embrace it.
WASHINGTON — A Microsoft executive’s recent quip about the purportedly un-American characteristics of non-proprietary software did more than send open-source fans into a tizzy.
It also sent companies supporting the Linux operating system a clear signal: You’ve become important enough for Microsoft to attack directly.
Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik said that his company is usually apolitical, but he’d relish the chance to wrangle with Microsoft execs in Washington, D.C. — and tell Congress why the feds should not shy away from open-source software but instead embrace it.
“I think it’s time to take the debate up a notch or two,” Szulik said in a telephone interview. “Red Hat, as a representative of the open-source community, would love to have an opportunity to provide a counter-argument to (Microsoft’s) claims to the U.S. Senate. We’d love to bring the brightest minds in the open-source community — both within and outside of Red Hat — to the U.S. Senate.”
In a a short essay sent to Wired News, Szulik elaborates on his response to Microsoft’s Windows OS chief Jim Allchin.
“I’m an American, I believe in the American Way,” Allchin told the Bloomberg wire service earlier this month. “I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don’t think we’ve done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat.”
Replies Red Hat’s Szulik: “For a man that informed to come out with a statement such as ‘Un-American,’ I found that to be ludicrous. The whole activity surrounding free software and open source is to accelerate innovation.”
Some U.S. government agencies have started to use Linux as their operating system of choice — the military seems to like it and the National Security Agency is experimenting with a security-enhanced version of Linux. And if Red Hat ever does testify, the firm may have a friend in Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the head of the Senate Judiciary committee who has held critical hearings in the past about Microsoft.
It’s true that, like the rest of the industry, Red Hat has experienced its share of disheartening news — layoffs, office closings, and a share price that has slipped from a 52-week high of $80 to $6 1/2.
But the once-indomitable Microsoft also has become suddenly vulnerable, thanks to a confluence of events that include a federal judge’s breakup order, a softening PC market, a steep decline in its market capitalization — and the gradual spread of software released under an open-source or GNU General Public License (GNU GPL).
Allchin later told the San Jose Mercury News’ Dan Gillmor that his comments were not directed at all open-source software, but specifically the GNU GPL. Programmers who release their software under the GPL create what amounts to infectious code: Whenever another developer uses their code in a program that is sold, he or she must make the source code available as well.
“When you’re in a business that’s under attack by Microsoft you have mixed feelings,” says the 44-year-old Red Hat executive in his essay.
“It’s nice to know that Linux and open source have grown so much, and moved so firmly into the mainstream of computing that mighty Microsoft is scared,” Szulik writes. “But on the other hand, it’s troubling to be in a great intellectual debate — perhaps the most fundamental in the history of computing — and have to face such specious and unfounded arguments and accusations.”
Szulik also said that the low cost of GPL-ware, in particular products distributed by Red Hat and similar firms, can bring less-affluent countries online at rates that proprietary Microsoft software can’t match.
“Look at the amazing adoption rate of open source and Linux as an operating system in Brazil and Argentina,” Szulik says. “When you go into Brazil and Mexico you see students embracing open source because of affordability and access. These markets could not be reached (otherwise).”
Szulik points out that it’s worked remarkably well: Much of the software — including Web servers, editors, shells, and languages like C and Perl — that keeps the Internet alive is GPL-ware. “Linux is the No. 2 server operating system in the world right now,” he says. “The data validate that conclusion.”
“I think reducing it to the ‘American way’ is kind of like the NAFTA argument: It’s counterintuitive,” Szulik says. “You can’t say you’re going to compete on a global basis and retreat (into such rhetoric). Imagine what people in Japan, Asia and Germany thought when they heard that comment.”
Szulik would not say what he thought of the ongoing Microsoft antitrust trial. Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday before a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.
Author: Declan McCullagh
News Service: Wired News