Why IBM buying Red Hat doesn’t matter

I found myself yawning as I read the news that IBM will be buying Red Hat for $34 billion and dumping a lot of its proprietary software on HCL, an Indian company. I stopped caring about Red Hat and IBM years ago. The fact that the fourth largest server company in the world is buying the leading Linux company should be big news, but I stopped caring in a personal way about these two companies years ago.

IBM in the 1950s – 1970s used to be the evil Goliath of the computer industry, but in my lifetime, IBM was the first tech giant to embrace free/open source software in a major way and help legitimize Linux. It was also the company that provided AMD and then Global Foundries with process tech to compete with Intel, and it was the company promoting the POWER architecture, which was the freest of the major CPU architectures (before RISC-V appeared on the scene and MIPS was recently open sourced). I should be celebrating that Big Blue is getting rid of lots of proprietary software and embracing open source in a major way, but IBM stopped being relevant to me years ago, when it sold its PC and then later its x86 server lines to Lenovo. IBM was the company which made Thinkpads into a durable line of laptops that was compatible with Linux and helped establish Linux as the OS for servers, but Big Blue has become largely irrelevant to me as the company sold off its hardware production to Lenovo and Global Foundries, and retreated into the niches of supercomputers, corporate middleware and data analysis.

I know that I should care about Red Hat, since it pays the salaries of a lot of the programmers who maintain critical GNU/Linux infrastructure, including Linux, Wayland, SystemD, GTK and GNOME. The problem is that Red Hat stopped marketing the Linux desktop in 2002, when it shifted toward servers and business services. I have never used JBoss, OpenShift or any of Red Hat’s middleware and I frankly detest using Red Hat Enterprise Linux and its derivative CentOS at work. I run my own web server on Debian, and when I check Statcounter, Distrowatch, and Linux surveys, I see that two thirds of Linux web servers and over 50% of Linux desktops are also running on a distro in the Debian family, so most Linux users agree with me. The corporate world may have embraced Red Hat, but most Linux users stopped using their distros years ago, and have increasingly embraced the Debian and Arch families, which aren’t controlled by corporations. In fact, all three of the major Linux companies (Red Hat, SUSE and Canonical) are increasingly irrelevant to the average Linux user, as they have retreated from the desktop and focused on servers and corporate services.

I guess that I should be worried about the Linux programmers since Red Hat is the second largest contributor to the Linux kernel, but IBM is unlikely to stop paying those programmers’ salaries. The biggest risk is that IBM as a floundering tech giant will drag down Red Hat as well, in the same way that Novell dragged down SUSE. On the other hand, getting a large tech company to more fully embrace open source and jettison a lot of proprietary software is a win of sorts.

Nonetheless, both IBM and Red Hat have largely become irrelevant to me as a Linux user. Neither of these companies was working on the desktop programs that need to be improved to so that users can create multimedia as easily in Linux as in Windows and MacOS. Graphs, grammar checking, and cut-and-paste still suck in LibreOffice and LibreOffice’s Draw and Presentations still aren’t as good as MS Paint and Powerpoint. I still can’t find a decent OCR program for Linux.

I care a lot more about the fortunes of a tiny company like Purism, than giant Linux companies like Red Hat and IBM, because the Linux titans are no longer working in the areas that expand user freedom or digital rights. I think its great that a lot of corporate infrastructure is running on Linux, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has been impossible to buy a new Intel PC that didn’t require binary blobs since 2009 or an AMD one since 2013. The surveillance capitalism practiced by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft (since the release of Windows 10) is still sucking up tons of our personal data and monetizing it, even if those companies have servers running on Linux and a free software stack. Regardless of the future fortunes or failures of Red Hat cum IBM, they will do little to improve the digital rights of users.

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