Red Hat CEO: Proprietary Software Model Broken

Unlike proprietary software, open source code forces developers to earn customers' subscription money every year, said Jim Whitehurst, at the Open Source Business Conference.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

March 24, 2009

3 Min Read

Jim Whitehurst, who has been CEO of Red Hat for five quarters, cited Delta Air Lines, his former company, in an example of why Linux is enjoying wider success these days.

Whitehurst made his remarks at the Open Source Business Conference on Tuesday, but didn't directly name Delta, where he was formerly chief operating officer.

"I was at a certain airline when it went through bankruptcy. And during that period, we cut costs everywhere -- everywhere but the IT budget got cut. IT expenses continued to grow. Finally, I got the joke. In IT, the game was stacked against the customer," he recounted to attendees Tuesday at the annual conference in San Francisco.

By stacked odds, he meant IT staffs are locked into their vendors' software and have few means of fighting regular pricing or price increases. They even have to take on the expense of migrating systems with which they are happy to upgraded versions, whether they wish to or not.

Whitehurst said that it's as if Boeing sold you a 777 jet airliner, and then came back and sold you the same plane again, with a few modifications. If an aerospace salesman attempted to do that, "you'd throw him out of your office." But proprietary software is sometimes sold that way, with new features and functions that the customer may not use but must upgrade to anyway.

"The proprietary software model is broken because it's unfriendly to the customer," he claimed. Open source code, on the other hand, leaves the power to upgrade or stay the same in the hands of the customer, the owner of the code. It also is forced to earn customer's subscription money every year or risk the customer not renewing the subscription, he added.

"We have to earn our customers' respect each year. We have to compete against their ability to run our software for free," he noted.

To try to ensure Red Hat does that, Whitehurst said the company is exploring ways to increase non-developer participation in the Enterprise Linux community.

Contributions typically take the form of critical feedback from developers and testers who try early versions of the code or come up with their own modules to contribute.

Whitehurst said other users, such as operations managers and system administrators, should be able to make suggestions on how Linux could be made easier to manage and maintain.

Spacewalk is an open source systems management project that is upstream from Enterprise Linux. Code created there may find its way into Red Hat products in the future. Whitehurst said he wants to see system administrators making more suggestions to Spacewalk developers. Some of those changes may find their way into the Red Hat Network Satellite, the product that enterprise customers install to receive updates, security fixes, or system upgrades from Red Hat.

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About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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