AOL to buy Red Hat?
January 18, 2002 10:09 PM   Subscribe

AOL to buy Red Hat? It seems like the Odd Couple of computing: the aggressively user-friendly behemoth marrying the most popular Linux distribution, united in their common hatred of Microsoft. Is Unix ready for the computer-illiterate masses? Will AOL be embraced by the geek community? The world's largest media company seems to think so. Hey, maybe they'll buy Lindows while they're at it. (See the Slashdot thread for more comments.)
posted by waxpancake (48 comments total)
 
"You've got Linux!"
posted by waxpancake at 10:13 PM on January 18, 2002


You've got root!
posted by froz at 10:20 PM on January 18, 2002


THAT would be a true tragedy ....
posted by justlooking at 10:20 PM on January 18, 2002


If I were AOL, this would be the only attractive piece.
posted by machaus at 10:34 PM on January 18, 2002


Is Unix ready for the computer-illiterate masses?

Despite what the article's "experts" might say, I have trouble believing this is actually a move to fight microsoft in the desktop space ... machaus makes a good point about the embeded stuff, that and linux's big foothold in the server end of things, seem more like rationales behind this move.

To completely stab in the dark, maybe AOL Time Warner has a very clever idea for the next upgrade to their cable modem/digital cable boxes.

Linux set top box? Seems likely.

...at least more likely than AOL/TW going head to head with MS in the consumer desktop market.
posted by malphigian at 11:02 PM on January 18, 2002


Suddenly AOL's ownership of Netscape seems more relevant.
posted by mrbula at 11:25 PM on January 18, 2002


God, that article makes a hash out of techie stuff at the end.
posted by SpecialK at 11:35 PM on January 18, 2002


AOS!
posted by zerolucid at 12:21 AM on January 19, 2002


Ask anyone that has used Mac OS X, with its deep roots in BSD, what that OS is like. You could completely forget the underpinnings if you didn't know you could bring up a prompt and run things from the command line.

With enough work put into it, I do believe it's possible to create an easy to use linux-based OS, and if AOL could have an OS to go along with their net access, they might be the only chance to challenge MS.
posted by mathowie at 12:42 AM on January 19, 2002


As corporate-leary as the next non-techie Linux user, I have to say this is a damn hot digitty dog thing for a few reasons.

-Cutting edge multimedia support in X would be bound to follow. Which would be nice.

-Dual software installs, (separate OS implementations on one CD) for apps and games, previously windows only.

-rpm installable drivers for all hardware components and compatible with any rpm compatible distro.

Granted, hardcore gpl/gnusters will be livid. If this doesn't put Stallman in his grave, we can rest assured, once he is there, he will be turning in it for a long time to come. He most certainly, will very soon, have something interesting to say about this.

This is all very new and much will come out in the wash. So it's difficult to predict where this could take Linux. One would hope however, that should this purchase come to pass, Linux would lead AOL (insofar as the general public license) and not the other way around. AOL being free of course to pursue it's content provider business and providing a stable desktop alternative to its millions of subscribers. All in all, considering what AOL, in large part *has not done* to its earlier acquisitions (winamp, netscape, gnutella, icq) we can be reasonably certain they wouldn't gut Red Hat.

And lastly, there is this unspoken law among Linux users: You don't treat your fellow Linux distro unkind.

You think there's no viri in Linux now. . .

Your friendly rpm you just downloaded and logged in as root to install, just might not be that friendly anymore.
posted by crasspastor at 1:17 AM on January 19, 2002


A lot of the value in buying a software company is that you are buying their developers. The unknown factor in this that nobody has mentioned is whether AOL would be able to hold on to Red Hat's developers.

Some at Red Hat might find that having their stock converted over favorably into AOL stock will give them a good excuse to cash out. And, of course, some of the developers just won't want to work for AOL.

After all, isn't that what happened when jwz left AOL?!
posted by insomnia_lj at 3:38 AM on January 19, 2002


If I were AOL, this would be the only attractive piece.

I think this is darn purty too. Automatic upgrades configured remotely using XML-RPC. It even generates revenue.
posted by rcade at 4:00 AM on January 19, 2002


The idea of an AOL OS has been mooted previously. Especially given the continuing tussles over "desktop access", i.e. icons for your software on the desktops of new Windows systems, this has to be an attractive option for Vienna to consider. Whether people would buy a Windows-less PC, even if it were $100 cheaper, is another matter, but if it came with an MSWorks-alike, combined with AOL, you've pretty much got everything most people will use short of games.
posted by dhartung at 5:41 AM on January 19, 2002


... Linux set top box? Seems likely ... Sure. It's called "TiVo".
posted by chrish at 6:11 AM on January 19, 2002


I think its very unlikely that AOL will ever try to compete in the big box PC market. Even if they manage to get Dell and the rest to bundle their AOLinux (aint I clever?) the $80-$100 savings means you can't run %99.999 of your beloved Windows software.

If I had to make a bet I'd go with malphigian. An el-cheapo Linux running $300 net terminal with some usable free software preinstalled would sell like hotcakes to people who can't afford a new PC every couple years and who use it primarily for AOL/Internet. That describes a lot of people in my neighborhood. Now imagine AOL selling this toy with $100 off if you sign up for AOL for the next three years just like MSN does at Best Buy.
posted by skallas at 7:30 AM on January 19, 2002


AOL RedHat Linux! Free for 1000 hours!

yeah right!!!!
posted by tilt at 7:49 AM on January 19, 2002


I believe for once some really good insightful comments were made on the slashdot article. For instance, many people who aren't computer literate only use their computer for a few applications. Everytime AOL doesn't work the people call AOL, even if it is a Windows problem. Why should AOL support a product that it competes with? I can easily see AOL putting out special "AOL Computers" which would be low end and have basic applications. With a nice GUI people won't care it is linux.

I'm somewhat excited about this, AOL has a lot of leverage and can turn into another Apple if they wanted to. That means that Linux could finally get that push out of geekdom into something we can all use as seamlessly as Windows (that means increased usability and product base).

I think AOL is just as bad and just as corporate as MS but I'd rather have two companies duke it out then just one controlling the market.
posted by geoff. at 8:34 AM on January 19, 2002


I think the real question is "What does AOL want with Red Hat?" This answer can't be "Linux," because Linux, of course, is free.

So if it's not Red Hat's products AOL is after, then it has to be Red Hat's operations and services. What is the value that AOL sees in Red Hat's operations?
posted by NortonDC at 8:35 AM on January 19, 2002


chrish, Yah, I know TIVO is linuxed up -- but a TIVO is not really the mythical "convergent" device I was talking about.

Basically TiVO + WebTV + a regular TW digital cable box, all in one package. Sold as a "deal" with the RoadRunner service, email, digital cable, heck, maybe even phone service. Running Redhat and using Mozilla for web browsing. All building towards that $200/mo cable bill AOL/TW wants.
posted by malphigian at 9:00 AM on January 19, 2002


NortonDC: The answer has to be Linux --- because that's what Red Hat does. My guess is, AOL is targeting the embedded version of the OS for a set top box or thin client to make like what malphigian suggested: "TiVO + WebTV + a regular TW digital cable box, all in one package."
posted by chrish at 9:37 AM on January 19, 2002


I like MS - and so am quite happy to see AOL talking about buying Red Hat. Folks that think the deal would be a good thing may remember when the Netscape browser had considerable market share - and then look at it's numbers since AOL bought it.
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:38 AM on January 19, 2002


It's interesting, though -- if AOL owned an OS, they could try and revive the old "appliance" concept of the computer, but more robustly. You could by a rock-solid, reliable machine that gave you your AOL (browser, email, IM, AOL services, etc.), a direct hookup to your TimeWarner content (including music and eventually movies), and probably a few other proprietary applications, like Apple's iPhoto.

Then, not only would AOL be tied to Windows (and subject to any future decisions MS might make to compete with AOL's existing services), they could actually turn Windows' weaknesses against it. Every time an AOL customer called in with a technology complaint, you can bet their service rep would be sure to remind them of that recent advertising campaign about how complete setup on the new AOL PC is preinstalled and it never crashes....

In any case, going forward, I think AOL has got to have some strategy to pursue in case MS begins to use its desktop hegemony (as the article put it) against them. MS has done it before, and is obviously after AOL's market -- so long as MS is so dominant, AOL can't afford not to be able to offer an alternative.
posted by mattpfeff at 10:09 AM on January 19, 2002


MidasMulligan: and then look at it's numbers since AOL bought it.

I'd argue that this is circumstantial, as Netscape decided not to release any product competitive with the improving versions of IE, until 6, which was viewed as "too little too late" in some circles. I don't think Netscape lost market share because of AOL (although it's probable that it didn't help); I think Netscape lost market share due to an inferior product.

AOL/Red Hat and Microsoft are really a battle of "lesser of two evils". AOL is turning into the company Microsoft wants to be: one with vast control over the media and technology. Microsoft's got a lot of the technology, a whole lot, but has yet to do anything competent with the media (MSNBC potentially exempted.)

Any way you slice it, it's harmful for consumers and sets up a potential Ubercorporation in the not-too-distant future.
posted by hijinx at 10:23 AM on January 19, 2002


I like MS

Is that trolling?
posted by Loudmax at 10:30 AM on January 19, 2002


I'd argue that this is circumstantial

Agreed, look at WinAmp, its still everywhere. AOL also owns ICQ solely to push AIM. AOL buys for many different reasons and I agree that they are no better than Microsoft, but they aren't the convicted monopolists here. For all I know they bought these items to beat MS to the punch, or perhaps they failed at launching their own media player.

Any way you slice it, it's harmful for consumers and sets up a potential Ubercorporation in the not-too-distant future.

I disagree. We already have a monopoly in the OS market. Another company competing for the same dollars that can match MS's money and power can only help consumers. Two goliaths going at it sure beats goliath coming after me.
posted by skallas at 10:33 AM on January 19, 2002


" ... I'd argue that this is circumstantial, as Netscape decided not to release any product competitive with the improving versions of IE, until 6, which was viewed as "too little too late" in some circles ...".

I agree absolutely with your point, but would simply mention that the lack of a release was anything but circumstantial. The initial lawsuits against Microsoft were generated by competitors - the Scott McNealy's, Larry Ellison's, and Steve Case's of the world- (this is a fairly sophisticated board, and even if you hate MS, I presume people here understand enough about big money and the Justice Dept. to understand that the whole thing was never about helping the "consumer" ... some of the more surreal moments in the trial were Netscape executives attempting to claim that MS was monopolistic and damaged the public because they had given away - for free - a browser, thus completely obliterating the nearly complete monopoly Netscape had with a browser they charged $25 for).

Trouble was, in the midst of the lawsuit in which companies like Netscape were trying to prove they were nearly destroyed by MS's nasty behavior, AOL bought Netscape for hundreds of millions of dollars, netting small fortune's for Netscape executives (not exactly the best evidence you've been destroyed). Arguments were then tending towards looking at market share numbers. Numbers always get a boost when a new version is released. Netscape, and AOL, knew full well the Netscape browser was becoming incresingly uncompetitive the longer it went without releasing a new version (these aren't stupid people). But the other thing holding back did was to make certain MS's market share steadily climbed, and Netscape's dwindled to the sub-10% level. And at the moments when the judge was considering all the evidence submitted, and getting ready to render his decision, Netscape's numbers had reached the lowest point they could conceivably reach.

So then, remember when the public beta of Netscape 6 was finally released? The day after - note that - the day after the judge issued his decision in the MS case. It was a riot to see Steve Case trot out in front of the press that day and say that this very odd timing was certainly just a complete coincidence.

AOL killed Netscape because it suited it's purposes in the political/judicial realm. I say again to those who like Linux ... don't feel too comfortable with the notion of AOL/Time Warner buying Red Hat.
posted by MidasMulligan at 10:56 AM on January 19, 2002


" ... I like MS

Is that trolling? ..."


Er, no. Wasn't intended to be anyway. I engineer enterprise systems for a Fortune 100 company, and for most of my day work with people who clearly see the immense competitive value MS products add to business. (When our IT executive governance boards meet to choose products we're going to spend millions on, it is purely rational decision making ... and in a lot of cases, MS just beats the crap out of it's competitors when we weigh all the variables.)

I am sort of dimly aware that there are other circles in which Linux is some sort of religion, and in which apparently it is assumed that everyone must obviously think Microsoft is evil and worthless and that anything that might hurt MS is good. But corporate America does not make multi million dollar investments in computer sysytems based on some sort of emotional hatred in one company, or belief in another.

Hadn't realized this board was one of those places where technology discussions were religious, not rational ... but if the simple statement "I like MS" is considered trolling, perhaps it is.
posted by MidasMulligan at 11:14 AM on January 19, 2002


MidasMulligan - It is absolutely impossible for AOL to kill Linux.

Absolutely.
posted by NortonDC at 11:19 AM on January 19, 2002


" ... MidasMulligan - It is absolutely impossible for AOL to kill Linux. Absolutely. ..."

I understand this is probably a belief because even if AOL buys Red Hat, Linux itself is still open source - so all AOL could do would be to kill the Red Hat company. However, please do consider the immensity of AOL's market clout, and it's attitudes about open source. It is probably the company I'd least expect to keep the Red Hat implementation of Linux open source - as AOL traditionally is one of the most propriatary companies on earth. They want to share nothing (remember the IM wars?).

Do you honestly think that if AOL puts considerable resources into building Linux out, they are just going to contribute the code to the general population? I consider it far more likely that over time you'd see an AOL Linux begin developing seperately from the open source Linux. Trouble is (and here's where market clout enters in) if you're a developer, and choosing to work on applications for Linux with you're scare time ... what would you build to - the AOL Linux (with a market of 35 million+ potential users) or the open source version? I repeat - think through the various things AOL might do with Linux.

I've dealt, at a fairly senior level, with both MS and AOL. Believe me: Fear AOL.
posted by MidasMulligan at 11:35 AM on January 19, 2002


Open source developers will still develop for GNU/Linux, or GNU/whatever-comes-next, even if AOL develops it's own proprietary distro that's incompatible with the open source version. There aren't many commercial enterprises developing for linux desktop systems as it is. They can't un-GPL what's already there.

" ... I like MS

Is that trolling? ..."


I didn't seriously intend to call anyone here a troll. I meant this as a joke, but the "troll" label gets tossed around too liberally at times. Perhaps I shouldn't have put it this way. I'm sorry if I hurt any feelings.

But while I can accept liking Windows because it's easy to get set up and running quickly, I think it's absurd for anyone to like the Microsoft the corporation, unless you have stock options in it. Not because they produce shoddy software, but simply because they have a virtual monopoly and they repeatedly try to stiffle any form of competition. Competition is the driving force behind all economic progress. Under a monopoly, there's no competion, there is no free market, there is no progress, and consumers and the economy will suffer. If any single company, whether it's M$, RedHat, AOL or whoever, dominates the internet as M$ dominates the desktop today, it will be a trajedy for the free market, and for us all. And this is precisely what Microsoft is trying to do.
posted by Loudmax at 1:50 PM on January 19, 2002


It is probably the company I'd least expect to keep the Red Hat implementation of Linux open source - as AOL traditionally is one of the most propriatary companies on earth. They want to share nothing (remember the IM wars?).
Try opensource.aol.com or sourceforge.net/projects/aolserver... and they still fund Mozilla developers.

(not that I'd like it to happen, I like where Redhat are heading)
posted by holloway at 2:17 PM on January 19, 2002


Midas: umm... AOL can destroy Red Hat. I don't think anyone here argues with that. But you seem to think destroying Red Hat would mean destroying Linux... which is a fairly ridiculous idea. Am I misreading you or what?
posted by louie at 2:27 PM on January 19, 2002


could AOL be going the Apple route? OS + web in one?
posted by wantwit at 2:52 PM on January 19, 2002


AOL believes in law. AOL is part of why Virginia, it's home state, is under UCITA (the other part being fucking inbreds in government). As others have pointed out, AOL understands what it means for a project to be opensource, which you apparently do not. AOL, as a part of AOL Time Warner, has an enormous vested interest in copyright. The GPL is copyright. It is in AOL's direct interest to respect the GPL.

Not that they have a choice in the matter.
posted by NortonDC at 5:16 PM on January 19, 2002


I don't think Netscape lost market share because of AOL (although it's probable that it didn't help); I think Netscape lost market share due to an inferior product.

AOL killed Netscape because it suited it's purposes in the political/judicial realm.


Yes, Netscape lost market share because of an inferior product, but the core reason is that the quality engineers all left Netscape, post-buyout. When you lose all the engineering history, bye-bye quality.

Politics aside, this is exactly what will make or break AOL/Red Hat. You need to keep the good people to make good products. Now imagine you've been at Red Hat for a while, pushing hard to get Linux out there, and then you discover you've been bought buy AOL. Ouch! It'd be like if Dark Horse Comics was bought by Disney, or the Nation by the National Enquirer. Do you stay? Do you say Screw It?

It'll be very interesting to watch how this one plays out.
posted by billder at 6:04 PM on January 19, 2002


Do you honestly think that if AOL puts considerable resources into building Linux out, they are just going to contribute the code to the general population?

Yes. Not to do so would be to violate the license agreement under which they have access to the Linux source code. It'd be simply illegal for them to put development work into Linux and *not* give it away.

Besides, they have already inherited one major open-source project (Mozilla) without screwing up in that particular way, so I'd expect that if they absorbed an open-source-product-centered company like Red Hat, they would do the right thing in that situation as well.

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:55 PM on January 19, 2002


" ... But while I can accept liking Windows because it's easy to get set up and running quickly, I think it's absurd for anyone to like the Microsoft the corporation, unless you have stock options in it. Not because they produce shoddy software, but simply because they have a virtual monopoly and they repeatedly try to stiffle any form of competition ..."

Well ... I'd differ with you here. Actually, I'd probably argue that there's a good case to be made for a natural monopoly (or at least an oligopoly with a very small number of players) in the desktop realm. Ten years ago there was a bunch of competition in (for instance) word processing programs. And it wound up taking a series of emails or conversations simply to give somone a file. Nice as it is to complain about monopolies, I'm not certain that the benefits of some theoretical competition would outweigh the convenience of simply being able to say "Send it to me as a Word file".
posted by MidasMulligan at 10:26 PM on January 19, 2002


" ... AOL believes in law. AOL is part of why Virginia, it's home state, is under UCITA (the other part being fucking inbreds in government). As others have pointed out, AOL understands what it means for a project to be opensource, which you apparently do not. AOL, as a part of AOL Time Warner, has an enormous vested interest in copyright. The GPL is copyright. It is in AOL's direct interest to respect the GPL ..."

Wow, your faith in AOL is quite stunning. AOL has a vested interest in making money. If the GPL helps them, they'll honor it. If it gets in the way, well, I'd love to see the open source movement attempt to go head to head with AOL in court.

Oh yes, by the way, I most certainly do understand what opensource means (thanks, though, for the gratuitous cheap shot). Apparently you, however, are cluelessly naive about what a multinational as huge as AOL/TW could do if it decided the GPL was inconvenient.
posted by MidasMulligan at 10:40 PM on January 19, 2002


Yes. Not to do so would be to violate the license agreement under which they have access to the Linux source code. It'd be simply illegal for them to put development work into Linux and *not* give it away.

Not necessarily. Plenty of proprietary software runs on Linux; Realplayer, Opera, Games ported by Loki etc. The source code is not released for those and said software is not available under the GPL.

The scary thing with AOL buying a Linux distro is that they could funnel closed source Linux development away from the *cause* as it were.
posted by crasspastor at 11:30 PM on January 19, 2002


MidasMulligan - No, I'm not being naive at all. I'm counting on AOL Time Warner to do what's in it's best financial interest, and backing copyright is most definitely in AOL Time Warner's best interest.

Now should AOL Time Warner get any idea's about ignoring copyright, specifically in the realm of computer software, can you think of any company that might hold their feet to the fire? Any company that has enormous financial and legal resources? Any company with a hard-earned reputation for litigousness? Any company with interests directly opposed to AOL Time Warner's? Any company that has made a point of publicly endorsing the legality of the GPL, to the point of explicitly forbidding their employess to read GPL'ed code?

This is the development that makes Microsoft the GPL's defender.
posted by NortonDC at 5:08 AM on January 20, 2002


malphigian wrote: I know TIVO is linuxed up -- but a TIVO is not really the mythical "convergent" device I was talking about

Fortunately these devices are finally looking a hell of a lot less mythical. . . the next TiVo will be souped up, Moxi (formerly Readon Steel) just announced their product ready fro distribution by last mile providers (linux-based, CD/DVD-R, PVR, DSL/cable, 802.11 driving up to 4 PCs or TVs) . . . this is why the RedHat/AOL starts to make some sense.

Within five years the majority of IP devices will NOT be PCs, and the gaming console/set-top-box/mobile phone companies all know MSFT wants to dominate the non-PC world. Linux provides a great to cut out MSFT, which is also why I think AOL would be a decent member of the community--they're not gonna sell an OS, they're going to use Linux OS design wins on devices to lock MSFT out of the opportunity to sell consumer services (like MSN and all the vague, scary .NET crap).
posted by donovan at 1:34 PM on January 20, 2002


MidasMulligan: it's called a standard.
posted by Ptrin at 3:01 PM on January 20, 2002


Yes. Not to do so would be to violate the license agreement under which they have access to the Linux source code. It'd be simply illegal for them to put development work into Linux and *not* give it away.
Not really. It's only code that relies on GPL libraries, or that is an extension of other GPL code, that must itself be GPL'd. They can write their own closed-source software and run it ontop of Linux like anyone else. It depends on how they interface their code with GPL'd code.

Which makes AOL's battle with the GPL a bit of a non-issue.
posted by holloway at 3:10 PM on January 20, 2002


MidasMulligan: it's called a standard.

Gosh thanks Ptrin. I'd never heard of that W3C thing. I don't understand what standards are - could you explain it to me?
posted by MidasMulligan at 3:19 PM on January 20, 2002


Ptrin: webstandards.org use style to express content and in doing so break standards.
posted by holloway at 4:05 PM on January 20, 2002


Not necessarily. Plenty of proprietary software runs on Linux; Realplayer, Opera, Games ported by Loki etc. The source code is not released for those and said software is not available under the GPL.

Yes, I know that - I used to be on the Unix RealPlayer team, actually. AOL can develop whatever software they want and sell it under whatever terms they choose. My point is simply that they can't do anything to Linux itself without giving away the changes they've made. They can add whatever software they want, of course, and if it's novel and useful people will probably buy it. But that's a different issue, and availability of compelling software only helps improve Linux' popularity.

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 5:43 PM on January 20, 2002


Ah... sorry. The linux kernel/distro ambiguity comes up again.
posted by holloway at 6:30 PM on January 20, 2002


AOL/TW tells CNet that "The Washington Post story is incorrect".
posted by mattpfeff at 3:38 PM on January 22, 2002


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