Red Hat’s mindshare, and my summer internship

[Edited to clarify who was saying what, and a postscript added to further clarify my position re: developer mindshare.]

Silicon Valley Sleuth said Thursday:

“Red Hat may not be perfect, but the vendor has by far the most developer mind share within the open source community.”

James Governor replied Friday (in his del.icio.us links, which he should make more linkable ;), like Stephen does):

“what might that mean? there is no single open source community.”

James is completely correct that there is no single open source community- there are server people, desktop people, solaris/bsd people, ‘commercial’ open source people, ‘enterprise’ people, community people, etc., and each of those is splintered into a thousand different projects and products.

But here is the thing- Red Hat has a huge mindshare in basically all of those areas. They may not be liked; in many spaces they are being aggressively competed against; and in some places they are losing. But however you slice it, people are definitely aware of RH in virtually every open source community. If you’re an enterprise deploying ‘enterprise’ open source, odds are very high you’re using RHEL, though OpenSolaris is charging hard. If you’re doing web hacking, odds are overwhelming you at least evaluated RHEL or Fedora as a server, even if you settled on Debian or something else. If you’re doing open source desktop deployments, the same (though replace Debian with OpenSuSE or Ubuntu). If you’re an open source community of any stripe, odds are good your software has developers and users who use Fedora. (Mozilla, for example, gains the majority of their market share from Windows, but gets a ton of patches from RH [ed.: see comments], mozilla.org runs on RH, and one of the Mozilla board members is a RH employee.) If you’re a BSD, you’re aware of (jealous of?) of Linux’s (and hence RH’s) market share. If you’re an open source company, you’re envious of RH’s cash flow and growth, and you’re studying (and maybe mimicking) their business model.

So there are many open source communities/spaces, and RH is being challenged aggressively in all of them. But RH is one of the few who can legitimately claim to have significant mindshare, either as a player, tools provider, or role model, in just about every one. So I think the original comment that James quoted is originally correct.

What about me?
One of those spaces I haven’t mentioned yet is the open source/corporate legal space. RH’s leadership on patents has been a model other open source companies should follow, their trademark policy is influential (even if I wish it could be done differently), and they get themselves involved in critical work like GPL v3.

Given that important role, I’m really excited to write that I’m going to work as an intern for RH’s general counsel’s office this summer. I’m sure I’ll be doing the legal equivalent of fetching coffee all summer, and at best working tangentially on the really interesting stuff I’ve mentioned above, but still- it is an interesting and influential place, and I’m excited to get three months to peek inside it, and take away lessons that I can apply wherever I work in the future.

[Tangentially, as an open source-concerned intern, I’m not just excited about how Big And Important Red Hat is, I’m also pleased that they seem to get the little details right. For example, their company code of ethics (which I signed yesterday) explicitly says that contributing to open source projects, even if it adversely impacts the company, is not a violation of the conflict of interest rules. This can’t perfectly cover the natural tendency not to bite the hand that feeds, but it is a very solid step other open source companies should emulate. There are other nice, pro-open source/pro-community things scattered throughout their non-compete, code of ethics, etc., but that was the one that really jumped out. I’m always nervous when opening up an NDA or job contract- but after reading through this one I was thoroughly pleased. Kudos to RH on getting the little details right- another reason why I’m excited to work there for the summer.]

Postscript: on developer mindshare

After I originally wrote this, James and Stephen argue that “the linux platform with the most developer mindshare, we argue, is clearly Debian.” I have to disagree. I don’t think that has been true for a long time. Debian is clearly respected, and lot of people (including me) believe that Debian’s health and strong stand on Freedom are critical to the long-term health of Free software. But Debian’s long delays between releases and terrible installer (better now, but still primitive when compared to any modern distro) have been costing it users and mindshare for nearly a full decade now. I used to be a Debian bigot- to install Debian on my first laptop, c. 1999, I was very happy to jump through 1,000 hoops. One of the first hoops was to do a full Red Hat install, because even in 1999 Red Hat’s installer was light years ahead of Debian’s, and I couldn’t convince Debian’s installer to recognize critical bits of my hardware. I haven’t given a moment’s thought to installing Debian since late 2001, when I realized I could get a journaling FS in a RH install and it was likely to be literally years before I would get that in a stable Debian release. (I’m pretty sure that the default installer for stable Debian didn’t recognize ext3/XFS until Sarge, in June 2005; coincidentally the same release that included GNOME 2.x (first released in 2002) in stable.)

This doesn’t even consider Debian’s constant internal bickering, which I’m willing to ignore when choosing an OS, but which generally has made their developer community the laughingstock of other large free software projects. Debian’s developer community is the retarded boogeyman the rest of us want to avoid being (and I say that as a GNOME developer, where talk first/develop later has become a scary norm. GNOME still isn’t that bad.) I think that has cost them a lot of mindshare, at least among knowledgeable/’old hand’ free software developers.

So… I love Debian, and think it is critical to the long-term health of the Free Software ecosystem. I hope it always has users, developers, and mindshare. But I haven’t considered installing it in ages, and I think I’m in a large majority there. If even a complete Free Software bigot like myself won’t install it, I can’t believe that it has dominant developer mindshare. I’m pretty sure that position still falls to Red Hat, by virtue of their broad user base, broad commercial uptake, and freedom, ease of use and up-to-dateness for non-commercial (read: community) users.

(Worth noting, by the way, that Ian seems to agree that RH is #1 in mindshare.)