"When the elephants fight," they say in West Africa, "it's the grass that gets trampled." The Linux community is apparently beginning to identify with that proverb, as it watches Sun Microsystems and Red Hat engage in an increasingly vehement war of words designed more to advance the respective commercial agendas of Sun and Red Hat than to promote unification and standards -- the two pillars of a successful open source world. This dispute has run in parallel with the Linux v Sun kernel developer wars we reported yesterday.

Sun's president and COO Jonathan Schwartz has, over the past few weeks, been making more and more pointed remarks about Red Hat. It culminated though when he protested about a Forbes magazine headline on 1 September: "Sun Micro Still A Potential Threat To Linux."

"Headlines like this...really drive me nuts," Schwartz wrote, in his widely-read blog. "Sun is not a threat to GNU/linux," Schwartz thundered, using his deliberately provocative lower case 'l' for 'linux'- "Innovation is not a threat to GNU/linux. dTrace is not a threat to linux. Nor is Solaris 10, nor Janus."

What was a threat, Schwartz contended, is Red Hat.

But let us back up a moment. What sparked the Forbes report in the first place was the news from Credit Suisse First Boston that the recent run on Red Hat's stock price was "due at least in part to reports that Sun is changing its plan to encourage sales of its Solaris system on commodity, or non-Sun, hardware." The market, CSFB stated, was overreacting. Many execution challenges remain for Sun, the research firm noted, "and we find no evidence that Sun's recent initiatives at the low end of the market are changing strategic decisions to migrate to Linux."

What maddened Schwartz was the conflation, in the Forbes report, of Linux and Red Hat. He pointed out that "Red Hat is not linux, despite what they say, and despite what the media (and IBM's ads) seem to
conflate."

His "Red Hat is not linux" refrain was nothing new. It's just that when Forbes gets it wrong -- and CNET, whose "Sun Sales Tactic Targets Linux" headline also came under his critical eye -- Schwartz was just as unhappy this month as he was back in July. Sun is not targeting anyone but Red Hat, wrote Schwartz. Which is a distro, he underlined. ("Let's get specific," Schwartz urged. "Let's start calling a distro a
distro.")

"To my friends in the media," he protested, "you are confusing a social movement with a single company - that social movement is all about choice, innovation and freedom. Not dominance or dependence."

The situation became more inflamed when the CEO of Forrester Research, George Colony, wrote a report last week on a visit with Schwartz and Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman and chief executive, which Colony
summarised as follows:

"Sun's view is that Linux is nothing more than Red Hat. The operating system is not about world peace and the charitable work of the world's great programmers. It's like every other operating system ever
created: it's about the foibles, greed, mistakes and engineering prowess (or lack thereof) of one vendor - in this case, Red Hat."

So, which is it - is it the media that is "conflating" Linux and Red Hat, or is it Sun itself? Before any such answer could be reached, however, Schwartz managed to pour further oil onto the fire. In an
Open Letter to the OpenOffice community, he wrote:

"Please do not listen to the bizarro numbskull anti-Sun conspiracy theorists. They were lunatics then, they are lunatics now, they will always be lunatics. We love the open source community, we spawned from
it. We'll protect that community, that innovation, and our place in it, with all our heart and energy."

It's a pronouncement that Red Hat's vice president of open-source affairs, Michael Tiemann, has now pounced in an attempt to characterise Schwartz, and therefore Sun, as the bad guy. "Now, you
say that you love the open source community, but how much?" he asks. Tiemann then continues, in a crescendo of indignation:

"Would you promise that any open source developer can use any of your patents in open source code without fear of a lawsuit from you? Would you create a fund to defend open source developers against the
predatory practice of other patent holders? Would you put your financial muscle (what's left of it) and lobbying credibility (still good, I acknowledge) behind fighting software patents -- something our community universally hates because it threatens our ability to innovate? And if you won't, why not? Because you love Microsoft more?"

He ends by saying to Schwartz: "We are not bizarro numbskull anti-Sun conspiracy theorists. We are realists, living in a world of reality. Come join us. Calling us lunatics and making other claims that don't
stand up is not the Open Source way."

But Tiemann maybe gets off-course when, on a roll as it were, he throws the open-sourcing of Java into the mix. "If you love the open source community, you'd open source Java," he asserts. "If you won't
open source Java, it means you don't love us, or at least you don't trust us. Why, then, should we trust you?"

This last stratagem seems to have acted as a flag to the wider community that, when all is said and done, Tiemann is just showboating, much as he accuses Sun of doing - conveniently forgetting that Sun makes as strong a contribution to the open source world as Red Hat does.

"The open source issue is not as clear cut as Tiemann tries to present it," commented one observer. While another, replying on the RH site to the Red Hat Executive Blog where Tiemann's cri de coeur appeared, wrote, "The [Schwartz] blog you point to is talking about Open Office and you immediately start discussing Java. I didn't follow that jump."

It remains to be seen what the next stage of this Sun vs Red Hat war will be. But one thing at this stage is clear: in comparison, that other technology elephant IBM seems to be emerging well, with ordinary developers and SysAdmins apparently thinking that Big Blue, while not entirely faultless, has taken a huge business risk in tying some/all of its business and marketing campaigns to the success of Linux, even
while having AIX. A risk that is winning IBM admiration.

"I wish the same could be said for Sun," one message board post at LinuxWorld.com recently said. "Glad to see it's paying off for IBM, in the form of profits and community goodwill," the post continued.

The implication? That IBM, rather than Sun and Red Hat, seems to be the one giant player that's recognised Linux to be a (using Schwartz's own words) "social movement...all about choice, innovation and freedom. Not dominance or dependence."

So, the grass has spoken. Now let's see if the elephants in Santa Clara and Raleigh listen.