As the New York Times reported on Sunday, IBM is in the process of purchasing Red Hat, one of the largest corporate contributors to the Linux kernel. The news is great if you’ve got stock in either company or a passion to see a cloud computing services challenge Amazon (and Microsoft). But if you’re a fan of open source software, IBM’s move might be a little worrisome.
Red Hat is a major player in cloud computing, as well as being one of the primary contributors to Linux and adjacent software. However, its work in cloud computing, which is used primarily in enterprise situations, is what led to it being so attractive to IBM. Combined, they should be larger than Google, Microsoft, or Amazon—the current giants in the field. To get that big, IBM is spending $34 billion (£27 billion). That makes it one of the largest software acquisitions ever, and while the news is helping the stock prices of both companies today, splashy headlines are also making passionate supporters of open source software development, the philosophy that drives Linux development, nervous.
IBM is a drag
International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM, is one of the oldest technology companies in operation, with all the baggage and accolades that go with it. IBM was founded in 1911 and was one of the major providers of computing power to both America and Nazi Germany during the ‘30s and early ‘40s. It built the computers that put us into space in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the computers that kickstarted the PC revolution in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But despite its important past, the IBM of today has never been a cool, disrupt-y innovator. Rather, its known for its straight-laced image. Square guys in suits and vests producing technology blindly used by other corporations. The most interesting thing about IBM is its bottom line.
Unfortunately for the company and its shareholders, that bottom line has been in freefall over the last few years. By the end of 2017, IBM saw its profits drop for more than five straight years (and over 22 consecutive quarters). Warren Buffet and the Jeffries Financial Group both cautioned against investing in the company. A big part of that is because younger companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have been devastated by IBM in is traditional stronghold—enterprise computing.
IBM’s clearly aware of this. It’s repeatedly pushed its dumb Watson AI as a glimpse of the future of computing. But since the AI went on Jeopardy 7 years ago, it’s done little more than serve as a prop for IBM’s theatre of cool.
This is a company in desperate need to make money and rehabilitate its image, and now it’s purchased a major developer of free software and a big player in the same area IBM has historically floundered in. None of this is promising when you hear the company is buying Red Hat for $34 billion.
Why Red Hat matters
Red Hat is one of the primary corporate contributors to the Linux kernel—the basis of most open source operating systems currently in active development. In addition to contributing to the Linux kernel, it also provides developers for a lot of the free and open source software, or FOSS, stack. FOSS programs are the stuff that run, usually free of charge, on a variety of operating systems. Think LibreOffice or GIMP.
Red Hat contributes to many of the more fundamental elements of FOSS, like GNOME, the desktop environment that a number of Linux distributions use to allow people to use Linux without relying on command line. Or the nouveau drivers that allow Nvidia GPUs to work on Linux systems. These things are fundamental to the majority of Linux distributions—not just Red Hat’s.
If IBM finds that contributing resources (developers) to these elements of Linux didn’t help its bottom line and stops providing them, it would dramatically slow their development. Linux wouldn’t be dead in the water by any means, but it would be even less user-friendly than it is now and lag far behind for-profit operating systems like Windows and macOS.
It’s important to note that, per IBM’s press release, it “will remain committed” to open source software, saying:
IBM will remain committed to Red Hat’s open governance, open source contributions, participation in the open source community and development model, and fostering its widespread developer ecosystem.
Yes, IBM really does seem to care about open source
Despite IBM’s reputation as a shark doing anything for the bottom line, it’s important to note that it actually has a decent reputation for supporting open source software and the underlying philosophy behind its development. In the late 90s when Linux was rapidly ascending as a solid third operating system alternative for coders, sys admins, engineers, and people tired of Microsoft and Apple, IBM publicly announced its support. The business reason was clear: IBM recognised that Linux would be running on a great majority of the servers that would power the internet and corporations’ backends.
It created the IBM Linux Technology Center and was one of the first five companies (Red Hat was another) to contribute to the Open Invention Network—a patent pool designed to allow development in Linux without pesky and costly patent lawsuits. To date, it is the largest contributor to the pool as well.
There’s a good chance it could not screw things up. Particularly as it’s no more a corporate overlord than Red Hat itself, which was notably one of the first Linux distributions to actually charge users money for the privilege of using the software. Red Hat might not be nearly as old as IBM, but it’s still a publicly traded corporation in the business of making money. Provided IBM doesn’t sink it with all of its own debt it could continue to operate, now as a separate entity in IBM’s Hybrid Cloud, for years to come.
But, of course, I don’t actually work at IBM or Red Hat and don’t know anything for certain.