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Red Hat Chief: Where is the Rage?

BOSTON -- Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik opened his keynote here at Enterprise Linux Forum with a history refresher.

Almost 229 years to the day, a band of overtaxed colonists slipped aboard a British merchant ship under cover of darkness and dumped boxes of tea into the harbor. The Boston Tea Party metaphor, with its themes of resistance and independence, provided an apt pretext for Szulik's address.

The Massachusetts native urged the IT community to challenge legal and legislative manuevers that might stifle innovation, namely, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and corporate efforts to extend copyright protection.

"These things scare the hell out of me," Szulik said. "What is going to be left? Where is the rage?"

Red Hat protested the DMCA in its own way in October. The Linux software firm linked patch information to a European anti-DMCA site that forbids U.S. visitors from viewing technical data.

Congress passed the DMCA four years ago, after intense lobbying by movie producers, book publishers, and record companies. The act was designed to shield the content producers from pirates circumventing copyright protections.

But the law quickly sparked controversy as civil liberties groups and technologists charged that content providers were too quick to sue under the broadly worded measure. Several proposals are being floated that are aimed at striking a better balance.

In addition to urging a common sense approach to intellectual property rights, Szulik urged governors (including Massachusetts Governor-elect Mitt Romney) to use open source software to improve technology education in public schools. States and municipalities should redirect funds now used for licensing and maintenance of proprietary software into teacher training, Szulik said. Some of Red Hat's best developers are college dropouts who were bored by school, Szulik said.

Finally, on the subject of public policy, Szulik praised Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly for rejecting a settlement offer in the Microsoft antitrust case. Microsoft is a competitor of Red Hat's and Szulik acknowledged that intellectual challenges from the Redmond, Wash., software giant could damage its business.

Legal hurdles aside, Szulik sees great potential in the open source movement, both for Red Hat and competitors.

The transition of Linux from academia, to a small group of IT firms, to mainstream companies and federal agencies underlines the demand for software that is scalable, reliable, collaborative and, increasingly, secure, Szulik said, rattling off a number of big-name users including Amazon and the Department of Defense. The governments of China and Argentina are also embracing the technology for distance learning.

Another key selling point, especially in tough economic times, is return-on-investment. Companies transitioning from UNIX machines to Linux can see significant savings in maintenance costs, Szulik said.

Still, there business challenges as well. For example, the futre of desktop operating software, which has been dominated by Microsoft's Windows platform. While companies are working to offer an alternative, they must find a way to make legacy files compatible with Linux-based systems, Szulik said.

Another is providing support for companies to quickly and easily move switch to open source. To that end, Red Hat is working with colleges and universities to train enough developers to build applications. There is currently a high demand for skilled open source workers, which will close with additional educational programs.

"We are looking to bring back some of the enthusiasm to an industry that is cluttered with things that don't necessarily improve your system," Szulik said.

Editor's note: Enterprise Linux Forum and this Web site are both owned by Jupitermedia Corp.