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11/6/2006
09:54 PM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Target Linux: While Ellison Brings The Hammer, Ballmer Wields...The Coupon

Talk about a difference in style. When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wants to co-opt the Linux movement to the company's advantage, he dresses it up in patent peace and coupons. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison just brings the hammer down.

Talk about a difference in style. When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer wants to co-opt the Linux movement to the company's advantage, he dresses it up in patent peace and coupons. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison just brings the hammer down.In a Web 2.0 world where IBM and Microsoft and Google talk of playing nice with others while keeping the club handy, it's refreshing to have someone like Ellison put his ambition up on the mantel, as he did with his head-on play for Red Hat Linux customers, offering cut-rate support. It caught me more by surprise than it should have. Ellison served notice early this year that he wasn't going to sit by and watch open source gain momentum without tapping into it. "Rather than trying to fight this trend, the open source trend, we think it's important we figure out ways to make it work to our advantage," he told a Credit Suisse conference in February, outlining his rationale for acquiring open source software companies.

Microsoft, too, signaled that a deal such as its pact with Novell Suse Linux--in which it has bought support coupons for Suse Linux to give would-be Linux customers--wasn't out of the question. Its Sun settlement in 2004 promised much the same--bowing to customer demands for greater interoperability and cleaning up patent problems and settling feuds to get there. It's also typical of how Microsoft is playing the patent game: making nice with those who play along, while threatening to crush those who don't. Jury's still out on whether these deals change business IT pros' lives much.

As for how these differing styles will affect Red Hat, I'll leave that to other bloggers. Charles Babcock explains why Red Hat's acquisition of JBoss got it in this spot, where big software vendors consider it a threat worth countering. He compares Red Hat to a third-world supplier that's daring to go beyond providing raw materials. The 451 Group's Nick Selby makes a far rougher comparison: "the flattest piece of land between two battling superpowers : the Poland of software vendors."

Red Hat's public answer so far has been a stay-the-course strategy and some darn clever wordplay: an "Unfakeable Linux" response to Oracle's "Unbreakable Linux" pitch, and "Unthinkable" to the Microsoft-Novell deal, which it tars as an "innovation tax." It better keep its thesaurus handy: This fight's not likely to end at price cuts, coupons, or patent threats.

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