A Question of Trust

What do customers value most in a software vendor? Trust. So, who can you trust?

Recent announcements from the likes of Oracle, Microsoft,
Novell, and Sun have made me wonder what is it that customers value
most in their software vendors. So, pardon me as I step away from
purely legal issues this month to talk about the one thing I
believe customers value more than anything else in a vendor:

Now some may consider trust somewhat abstract, particularly in
this context, but it really isn’t. "i">Webster’s Dictionary defines trust as
“assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or
truth of someone or something.” Given that definition,
let’s analyze each vendor’s recent announcements to
measure trust.

Oracle recently announced that the company is going to release
its own Linux distribution, "i">Unbreakable Linux, and compete for support services on
Red Hat’s own Red Hat Enterprise Linux
(RHEL). While the first question you may be inclined to ask is
whether Oracle’s action is legal (for the most part, the
answer is yes), what you should be asking is whether Oracle can be
trusted to do it. Consider:

*Is Oracle building its
distribution from scratch, assuring that all of the components are
fully-tested and compatible, and confirming that proper open source
licenses are in place and compatible? It doesn’t appear so
— Oracle intends to merely rebrand Red Hat Enterprise

*Does Oracle have expertise in
all areas of Linux, such that the company will be able to resolve
customer problems quickly and accurately? That remains to be seen,
but if Oracle’s support of its own software is any
indication, don’t hold your breath.

*As Oracle issues its own
patches, will Unbreakable Linux still be compatible with Red Hat
Enterprise Linux? No.

*Has Oracle taken any steps to
assure that its Unbreakable Linux is fully compatible with, or
certified on the hardware of, a large variety of vendors? No, the
company have simply pulled information from Red Hat’s website
and passed it along.

You can see where this is headed — why would you trust
someone to provide your critical open source software when they
display so little character or ability?

Well, certainly Microsoft should be considered trustworthy,
shouldn’t they? (Do I really need to answer that question for

What about Novell, Hasn’t Novell been a solid open source
citizen since acquiring SuSE? They can be trusted, can’t
they? I, for one, certainly thought so, but the Microsoft deal has
convinced me otherwise. No matter how much lipstick you put on that
pig, it’s still a pig. It represents a deal done for
business expediency, not customer

It’s also a deal that clearly violates the spirit of free
and open source software, if not the letter of the principal free
and open source software license, the GNU General
Public License
(GPL). At the time of this writing, I
anticipate that the Free Software Foundation will find that the
deal to provide a covenant not to sue Novell Linux customers, paid
for by Novell, but provided directly to the customers by Microsoft,
is little more than a gimmick. And even if it passes muster with
version 2 of the GPL, there is little chance
that it will pass version 3.

Surely Sun deserves to be trusted for following through on its
promise to open source Java? Here, you have
a case. Scott McNealy managed to squander much of the early trust
Sun had established with the open source community around projects
such as Gnome and Open
by surrendering to Microsoft. But with
McNealy’s departure from and Rich Green’s return to
Sun, Sun has returned to its open source roots. un has now come to
understand a little more of the “voodoo economics”
around open source services, and how the Sun pie will get
substantially bigger by letting go of some of its tight control of
Java. For now, Sun gets a passing grade.

That leaves Red Hat, MySQL, The Apache Software Foundation, The
Gnome Foundation, and Sendmail, just to name a few. Quite frankly,
those firms should be judged by the same standards. (Red Hat has
had a misstep or two along the way, such as discontiuning support
for Red Hat Linux without "i">Fedora in place, or announcing the formation of the
Fedora Foundation then changing directions.)

However, I would argue that the aforementioned stalwart
companies and open source projects are clearly distinguished by
their transparency and desire to be trusted, not just by other
vendors, not just by the open source community, not just by
customers, but by all of these parties at the same time.
Maintaining trust places a burden on each company, since each will
have to leave one group unhappy to assure fairness to another of
the groups. Or sometimes the organization will have to refuse a
bear-hug by one vendor partner to stay open to all vendor partners.
More often than not, these entities have demonstrated that others
may rely on their character, ability, strength, and truth, and in
the long run, that is the winning message to all who work with

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