If AOL Buys RedHat

Rumors have surfaced this weekend about possible talks between AOL/Time-Warner and RedHat. So what could happen? Whatever it is, my best guess is that it won't be bad for the Linux community. At worst, we may have to switch distros. But things could be much more interesting.

The Dark Side

The Null Hypothesis: Nothing Happens

Maybe it's just a rumor. Well, in that case, a few people make extra bucks on the transient stock bubble. Maybe that was the whole idea. Or maybe it's real, but the Beast of Redmond makes threatening growls from its lair, and scares them off. That would be even better, since people would get to see once again what a bully Microsoft is. Maybe that's the plan -- throw the idea up in the air just to see how Microsoft reacts.

Maybe not.

Down the Tubes: The Rotting of RedHat

There are lots of things that could go wrong with a deal like this. Corporate culture clashes have doomed more than one merger; it's possible that many of RedHat's employees would feel mistreated, ignored, or simply out of place, and gradually drift away. It's even possible that AOL does something stupid or tactless, and drives a lot of the top people off at once.

Chances are, though, that it would take a couple of years for things to get really bad, and even then it's not certain. There would, of course, be individual disagreements and defections, but nothing that would damage the distro severely. There might be a shade less innovation in each release, a little more AOL-ness; RedHat might become a follower rather than a leader.

It's also possible that all AOL really wanted were a few of the pieces: a great OS for their server farms, a great development environment for their horde of programmers, and the CygWin DLL to make Windows look almost like a real OS. They might concentrate on those and let the distro slowly slip into disrepair.

If that happens, those of us who want to stay on the leading edge will switch distributions, and anyone formerly at RedHat who wants to do interesting work will go work somewhere else. No big deal; it happens all the time.

I don't really expect this to happen, though. Netscape is a good counterexample: they're continuing to muddle through, and Mozilla's getting really good, in its own sweet time; I've switched to it full time as of 0.9.7. netscape.com is even a pretty decent portal.

Conspiracy Theory: Revenge of The Beast

Putting on my tinfoil hat for a moment, there's always the remote possibility that this is a secret deal between AOL and Microsoft to destroy Linux. Excuse me?

At best, they might destroy a perfectly good distribution; it wouldn't be the first time (Corel comes to mind). But Linux goes on regardless.

Nobody owns Linux and nothing anyone does to a distribution, good, bad, or indifferent, can affect your system past the point where you get disgusted enough to type fdisk /dev/hda and install another.

The Light Side

OK, bad things can happen to good distros, but I don't consider any of those dark-side scenarios very likely.

AOL on the Desktop

Of course, AOL may want a tame distro so they can put their brand on the Linux desktop. It wouldn't surprise me much. It wouldn't surprise me at all to find that Netscape, rather than Mozilla, has become the default browser. And I'd be surprised to not to see an AOL icon alongside the red hats. OK, I don't let Nautilus run my desktop anyway: I've run ctwm for a decade now.

The best thing about AOL on Linux would be the utter, final destruction of the myth that Linux ``isn't ready for the desktop.'' The next best would be an end to AOL CD's in the mail -- AOL plus the latest RedHat distro won't fit on anything smaller than a DVD. (OK, they'll probably do a stripped-down version on CD-ROM, at least for a couple of years.)

Let's think a minute about what an AOL distribution would be like. It would boot from the DVD, of course: no need to partition your disk. It would mount your Windows partition, of course, and glean what configuration information it could from the Registry, including the display and networking configuration. Remember how Yggdrasil used to configure X?

After boot you'd have access to your legacy files, and even some of the apps (modulo a few lingering bugs in WINE). But now, AOL would have a stable, network-friendly platform to run on. Suddenly, Microsoft ceases to be a problem for AOL. And people start to discover that they can get useful work done without it. They come to expect to come home after a three-day vacation and find their GNOME/AOL desktop looking just the way they left it: no crashes, no viruses, nice little mail icon in the corner spinning away, ...

Best of all, when the time comes to upgrade, they just boot up from the new AOL disk they got in the mail, and away they go. Come to think of it...

If AOL and RedHat have any darned sense, of course, they'll make the new disks work even if you already have an ISP, and even if you already have Linux. Of course, RedHat's retail sales plummet under this scenario, but no doubt there will still be reasons to get the regular distro -- for example, if you want to install it on your hard disk, or if your machine can't boot from DVD's.

Did I mention playing DVD's on Linux? If the eventual goal is to replace Windows, they'd darned-well better allow it. Sure, the app might be shipped in binary, but I can live with that as long as draconian laws like the DMCA make it necessary (or until an open format takes over, not that I expect that to happen anytime soon).

The Penguin on your TV

Here's the fun scenario: set-top boxes. If Microsoft succeeds in making Windows the home gateway to the 'net, AOL has had it -- and the Xbox is moving rapidly in that direction. AOL has to act fast; fortunately there's already a move to put Linux into the set-top. You can see one version at Linux4.tv.

The problem with the Xbox is that it's a closed architecture -- the hard disk is copy-protected and the BIOS is gimmicked so it only boots from the disk. The hardware is specialized -- there may be a lot of PC-like components, but it's not a PC. Forget about putting Linux on that!

The Linux-based set-top boxes are real Linux machines -- check out the specs on these two by GCT AllWell. They even sell one configured as a router.

OK, there are plenty of ways you can screw up a Linux-based appliance, the main one being to leave it a closed box with no ability to get at the underlying Linux. Sometimes that's what you need -- if Linux is running on my car's engine controller, I'm not going to take the risk of rebuilding the kernel to see what it does to my miles-per-gallon.

But by the time AOL-TW and RedHat get around to building theirs, there will be plenty of good (and bad) examples to choose from, and hopefully they'll get it right. If they don't, well, all of the STB's (unlike the Xbox) are designed to be hacked on.

No, I don't expect to get Linux boxes in the mail for free, but I'll settle for volume driving the price down from $350 to, maybe, $200. And best of all, denying Microsoft the set-top monopoly it's hoping to gain with the Xbox.

$Id: if-aol-buys-rh.html,v 1.2 2002/03/31 02:32:13 steve Exp $
Stephen R. Savitzky <steve@theStarport.org>