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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

BOSTON–Top Linux seller Red Hat acknowledged on Friday a misstep in its relations with technology enthusiasts but said the profit motive is helping it to mend its ways.

The problem came in recent years when Red Hat threw its energies into a stable product called Red Hat Enterprise Linux. RHEL let the company grow from a small market of technically savvy customers to the large market of mainstream customers.

But in the process, Red Hat left those “early adopters” behind, said Michael Tiemann, vice president of open-source affairs. That was a problem because Red Hat–a pioneer in the business of open-source software–believes customers should be directly involved in designing and creating products from the earliest stages.

The company now is trying to rectify the situation with a more aggressive Fedora project that’s designed to engage again with those customers and outside developers. Part of that effort was the first-ever Fedora User and Developer Conference (FUDCon) held Friday at Boston University.

“One of the mistakes we made when we launched this Enterprise Linux product was we focused so exclusively on this enterprise market that we left this (early-adopter customer) square uncovered,” Tiemann said. “It insulted some of our best supporters. But worse, we lost our opportunity to do customer-driven innovation.”

Marten Mickos, chief executive of open-source-database company MySQL, said at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, also in Boston, that it can be difficult for open-source software companies to balance their commercial interests with those of their community of developers. It’s best for them to indicate clearly where they’re being self-interested and where they’re not, he said.

“If people are unsure of your intentions, then they lose trust. You can see with Red Hat…” Mickos said. “They realized they went a little too far away and now they are back there saying that Fedora is good. There are companies that went out of business because they couldn’t handle this part.”

And Red Hat has ample competition. Projects such as Gentoo lure hard-core Linux programmers, while Sun Microsystems is trying to build its own community of programmers around its OpenSolaris project.

The company acknowledged that Fedora didn’t live up to the expectations it set when it launched the project two years ago. But the project has shown some success in maturing technology quickly so it can be incorporated into RHEL, Tiemann said.

“Fedora creates the DNA that allows us to create a new product,” Tiemann said. For example, it was the heavy Fedora feedback that let Red Hat graft the Security Enhanced Linux, or SELinux, feature onto RHEL 4 without much disruption to customers, he said.

Red Hat hopes Fedora will expand beyond Red Hat’s boundaries through a component called Fedora Extras and a publicly available system for building new versions of the software. Tiemann hopes the current 1,600 or so different software packages in Fedora will grow as high as 3,000 or 4,000 this way.

Outsiders are working at getting more engaged. The Fedora version of Linux today runs on computers with x86 processors–both 32-bit models, such as Intel’s Pentium, and 64-bit models, such as Advanced Micro Devices’ Opteron. But that base is expanding.

The upcoming Fedora Core 4 is slated to support computers with IBM’s Power processors, such as Apple Computer’s Mac Mini. A Silicon Graphics programmer, Prarit Bhargava, is trying to bring Fedora to computers using Intel’s Itanium processors. And Red Hat programmer Tom “Spot” Callaway, working on his own time, has begun converging his Aurora project, which lets Linux run on Sun Microsystems’ Sparc processors, with Fedora.

CNET’s Martin LaMonica contributed to this report.