Microsoft Comes out Swinging
Microsoft announced this week that open source software infringes on 235 of its patents. The company is cagey about which patents and what the detailed infringements are. It does say that the Linux kernel infringes 42 patents, and that Linux's user interface (UI) infringes on 65 patents -- some very proprietary button placement no doubt, and very precious look and feel.
If they revealed more of the details, the software in question could be changed, and/or people would refute their charges. Instead, in an atmosphere of heightened awareness about frivolous patents, they're careful to avoid an SCO-like courtroom reckoning. Instead, reminiscent of the RIAA, the company is shrewdly using the media to brandish the specter of lawsuits over the growing open source community.
Microsoft paid Novell a few hundred million dollars for "coupons", which Microsoft can then sell to customers for Linux subscriptions. Novell, arguably eviscerated by Microsoft in the past, heaved itself back into a negotiating position with its SUSE Linux. Microsoft, for its part, has increasing found its expensive, proprietary, patch-needy software challenged by Linux. The deal was no doubt an attempt to stem the growing number of businesses abandoning its platform and opting for Linux.
There's a article on Microsoft's position, with some history on Linux, licensing, the legal claims, and open source in this Fortune article. The deal exploited loopholes in the GPL license which governs Linux distribution. Novell and Microsoft agreed not to sue each other's customers for patent infringement. The marketing collaboration may have been primary for Novell, and Microsoft was most likely also motivated to set a precedent. However, as Fortune noted, the deal naturally received scathing reviews from some small companies and open source purists.
"In free-software circles...the Microsoft-Novell entente was met with apoplectic rage. Novell's most eminent Linux developer quit in protest. Stallman [and his Free Software Foundation], of course, denounced it. Not only did it make a mockery of free-software principles, but it threatened the community's common-defense strategy."
Apparently companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, AIG, and members of the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL), approved the collaboration, which also got Linus Torvalds' blessing.
Ghosts of Big Blue
What's Microsoft up to? Some people have suggested that the Vista rollout wasn't as successful as Microsoft had hoped and that Microsoft is desperate. Microsoft sometimes misses the boat, and when they do they generally try anything they can to get back in the game anyway they can. They were famously late to the Internet party, but they now brag about Word's new html capabilities. They might be able to symbolically improve the 2003 edition of Word simply by adding the word "blog" to the dictionary. The 2003 version suggested that when I typed "blog", what I really meant "bog", or "bloc", or "blot", or "blob" or "blow" (in that order). As in, gee, we're really bogged down with Vista, let's form a bloc against Linux, let's obliterate it. Open source? We don't hear you, we don't hear you -- let's blot it out! Let's turn Linux customers to trembling blobs. Wow, this open source "movement's" tougher than we thought; this really blows.
Microsoft fails to surprise, since it has a track record of using strong-arm tactics, but open-source is not Netscape. Open source has growing support, both from organizations and individuals. Sun's Jonathan Schwartz, in a little Sun manifesto, did suggest pithily the Microsoft needs to wise up and "innovate, not litigate". He notes:
"You would be wise to listen to the customers you're threatening to sue - they can leave you, especially if you give them motivation. Remember, they wouldn't be motivated unless your products were somehow missing the mark."
Open source, he said, "is not a genie any litigator I know can put back in a bottle."
However it will most likely be a protracted battle. According to the Fortune article, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, AIG Technologies, HSBC, Wal-Mart, Dell and Reed Elsevier have bought coupons. These clients are naturally tremendously risk adverse and this may seem like a good option for them and their customers, rather than have Microsoft forever dangling hints of law suits around them. But importantly, these companies also depend on patent protection. They probably recognize open source as a common foe. Indeed some of them, like Reed Elsevier, are fighting their own, similar, open access battles.