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Consumer Linux? Just ask my 90 year old father, says Red Hat CEO

But there's a point here struggling to be heard

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Who drives Red Hat's product strategy? The CEO? What about the CEO's 90 year old father? Well, he certainly seems to have an input.

When The Register quizzed him on the consumer market yesterday, Matthew Szulik waxed suddenly passionate: "We know painfully well what happens when my 90 year old father reads about Red Hat Linux, buys a copy and tries to install it." Inexperienced people who buy Linux on the assumption that it will just work and handle all their hardware in the same way as a Windows machine does can often have a jolting experience, the consequences being heavy support costs for the company, and in all likelihood a not very satisfied customer at the end of it.

Naturally we cut to the chase. Hang on, we said, this is really, your 90 year old father you're talking about here, right? Not some kind of hypothetical, virtual father for the sake of argument? Szulik confirmed that it was indeed his very own 90 year old father he was talking about, adding that he was a stockholder too. Which quite clearly must have added to the level of pain inflicted by the incident.

Industry execs seem to have a habit of citing their relatives in a market research context, perhaps suggesting that they trust their paid-for market research just about as much as we do. You'd think, for example, Steve Ballmer's relations had suffered enough already, but no, he hauls them out as examples regularly. But there's more to Szulik's case than his father, other Red Hat stockholders will be relieved to learn.

In order to deal with this market, he says, there's still "a lot of work to be done on behalf of Linux. The worst thing you could do is go out into the consumer market with a me-too product that has to compete on price." Which is fair enough, and Red Hat has already provided an answer in that it is not going to address this market in the foreseeable future.

Szulik does not however spell out why Red Hat isn't addressing it, and the fact that Red Hat isn't addressing it doesn't mean that there isn't a market. Red Hat isn't going there because it doesn't see it as a rational place to put its limited resources, which is a fair business decision, but not the only possible business decision. If people (it'll have to be your father, Matthew, mine's busy) go into stores and buy Linux, then clearly there's demand. If they're unhappy afterwards, then the demand is not being properly fulfilled, so the other possible product development decision you could take away is that you should work to fulfill it.

Which is harder, more expensive and riskier, but although it's not a valid ROI-led route for Red Hat to take, it's surely bad for Linux in general if nobody takes it, or if nobody but Michael Robertson of Lindows takes it. What are you going to do, leave the franchise to Windows, forever? Or are you just 'waiting until Linux is mature enough'? Well get real, targets move, and if you don't put resources into hitting them now, they'll be even further away in five years time and you'll still be waiting.

But it's the choice Red Hat has made. The company is going for business, and if it's broader-based leadership you want you'll have to look elsewhere. As we suggested earlier today, there's a vacancy.

The natural, cheap-shot 'have you stopped beating your wife yet' question for Szulik was: 'You're saying all these people who go down to the store looking for an alternative should buy Windows?' So we asked it, largely for the personal entertainment value of watching him desperately swimming for the shore. We certainly didn't intend to use it to construct an entirely unfair hit-magnet Linux-screamer story. Some people, however, are not so particular. Plus they steal other people's questions - watch it, kid.

No matter, they could have been writing the real story, which is here. ®

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