In a speech and interview at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco Thursday, Szulik said he's been working for the past year and a half with Red Hat management, elected officials, and educators around the country to explore forming a nonprofit organization that promotes use of open-source software in schools and encourages open-source advocates to donate their time to education.
If schools switch from using Microsoft products to cheaper, open-source software, such as the Linux operating system and Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite, Szulik says they can spend the savings on teacher salaries and training. The IT industry "has looked at education as a market opportunity instead of as a responsibility," says Szulik. "When I hear elected officials talk about bridging the digital divide, what are they talking about? Some of these students don't even know what digital is."
Many school districts can't afford expensive computer hardware and software from "proprietary" vendors, the CEO says. And IT vendors' product donations often set schools down expensive upgrade paths. "To say Microsoft, Apple, and Dell are simply going to back up the truck and fix all this is incorrect," Szulik says.
Szulik says he's traveled to poor rural and urban school districts in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Missouri, and spoken with former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt and other elected officials about his plan to promote open-source software as an alternative for public schools. "Someone from the open-source industry had to step forward, and that's Red Hat's responsibility," he says.
Red Hat executives aren't strangers to the nonprofit world. Szulik is chairman of the North Carolina Electronics & Information Technologies Association, the state's high-tech trade association whose sponsors include Red Hat, Time Warner Cable, BellSouth Corp., and Cisco Systems.
Red Hat chairman Bob Young is chairman of the Center for the Public Domain, a North Carolina organization that promotes public access to information, and whose board members include Xerox executive John Seely Brown, and Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig. The center was once funded with Red Hat stock.
Szulik's criticism of Microsoft's educational sales aren't unprecedented. In July, the online magazine Salon.com reported that Microsoft is investigating the Philadelphia public school system for software-license compliance. A Microsoft spokesman didn't return a phone call by press time.