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Microsoft's Linux Deals: Tempest in a Teapot for Developers

Analysts say Microsoft’s IP deals won’t have a big impact on enterprise developers

Microsoft's relationship with the open source development community continued to evolve last month, with the company adding three suppliers of the Linux operating system to cross-licensing agreements.

Among the deals announced in June were agreements with Linux supplier Xandros Inc., Linspire Inc. and mobile device manufacture LG Electronics. The agreements are the first since Microsoft and Novell Inc.'s landmark cross-licensing and patent-liability indemnification pact in November.

Like the Novell pact, among the provisions of these latest deals is an agreement not to sue each other's customers over potential patent infringements. These so-called patent covenants have sparked heated discussion in the open source world, tepidly defensive responses from Microsoft and Novell, and more than a little confusion about their implications generally.

So, on balance, how will these patent pacts impact enterprise developers day-to-day? Very little, predicts Bruce Perens, the primary author of the Open Source Definition, which is considered the manifesto of the open source movement, and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative. "I don't really see customers in a rush to get this kind of protection," Perens tells RDN. "I don't believe they perceive it as much of a risk. And I think they're right about that."

U.K.-based analyst and long-time Microsoft watcher Neil Macehiter suggests that, in fact, Microsoft is acknowledging that its corporate customers live in a heterogeneous world. "Given the heterogeneity of most enterprise environments, customers are looking for greater interoperability, particularly with respect to open source." Macehiter says. "Microsoft is sending a message to customers that it understands the reality of their environments and is doing its best by them to reduce their concerns about the risks of Linux infringing on Microsoft IP and being sued."

Microsoft's General Manager of Interoperability and Standards Tom Robertson says the company's recent string of IP deals with Linux vendors should be viewed as Redmond extending an olive branch to the open source community, and not a bullying tactic. "We have through these arrangements found a way to bridge the open source community and the commercial software community in a very effective, forward-looking, positive way," Robertson says.

Robertson declined to comment on pending changes to the GNU Public License version 3 (GPLv3), which contains language intended to block Redmond from entering into further patent protection arrangements like the one it signed with Novell.

Smoke, but No Fire
Critics are quick to point out that actions speak louder than words. Microsoft has claimed that the Linux OS and related open source software infringe on about 235 of its patents-a claim that's widely rejected in the open source community.

Even partner Novell rejects such charges. "We generally don't think comments like that are productive," says Justin Steinman, Novell's director of product marketing for Linux and open platform solutions.

Redmond Exec Talks Goals, Limits of Open Source-Interop Push

Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager for interoperability and standards, acknowledges the underlying business concerns at stake for his company in its quest to partner with suppliers of open source software.

"IP is the primary vehicle for which you promote innovation in the marketplace," Robertson says. "Commercial property not only gives you incentives to innovate, but it lets you share in innovation.

"We think this makes very good biz sense over the coming years to focus on this in the way we have," he adds. "But certainly we're not going to do things that fundamentally undercut our business model or fundamentally undercut our viability in the marketplace."

Roberston also makes it clear where the limits are in Redmond's efforts around interoperability. "We're talking about an exchange of data between systems," he says. "We're not talking about cloning and substitutability. That's an important distinction to make."

-- Chris Kanaracus

That said, Novell's relationship with Microsoft is apparently paying off. Steinman pointed out that, unlike the Xandros deal, Microsoft is actually selling SuSE Linux licenses. The agreement, to sell at least $240 million worth of certificates for SuSE Linux, has exceeded Novell's expectations, having sold $91 million in the first six months of the five-year deal.

As for Microsoft's saber-rattling over patents, Perens points out that the company has yet to make a single infringement claim, probably because it's too late. He cites a legal doctrine known as "Laches," under which a patent holder who becomes aware of an infringement cannot delay enforcement until the market is larger and would bring greater royalties. "I think Microsoft has simply waited too long," Perens says.

Gaining Strength
Macehiter adds that the Linux vendors aren't the only open source players making deals with Microsoft. In 2005, the Redmond software maker signed an interoperability deal with JBoss, its first with an open source company. In February 2006, open source customer relationship management (CRM) provider SugarCRM Inc. agreed to expand from a LAMP-based infrastructure to include Microsoft, and later became the first open source vendor to adopt a Microsoft -- written open source license (the Microsoft Community License).

XenSource Inc., provider of open source virtualization software, licensed Microsoft's Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format in April of that year. About two months later, MySQL AB joined the Visual Studio Industry Partner program to make it easier for VS05 developers to use its open source database. In October, Microsoft teamed up with Zend Technologies Ltd. in a headline-grabbing pact to make it easier to develop PHP-based applications on a Microsoft-centric infrastructure. And in June, Microsoft announced a cross-licensing deal with mobile phone maker LG Electronics.

But an interoperability agreement and a patent infringement protection pact are entirely different issues. Some in the open source community see the inclusion of patent protection clauses in these deals as further attempts by Microsoft to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about open source software. Matt Asay, founder of the Open Source Business Conference, calls the agreements "patent FUD," and sees them as a way for Microsoft to lead the industry to acceptance of a "Microsoft innovation tax" on all open source software.

"When was the last time you heard Microsoft crowing about a patent deal with a proprietary company of Linspire's stature?" asks Asay, who also serves as VP of business development at Alfresco Software Inc., a provider of open source enterprise content management solutions. "They have somewhat naively entered into these patent pacts without understanding the ramifications for the industry, and not merely themselves."

Chris Kanaracus and Jeffrey Schwartz contributed to this report.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance author and journalist based in Silicon Valley. His latest book is The Everything Guide to Social Media. Follow John on Twitter, read his blog on ADTmag.com, check out his author page on Amazon, or e-mail him at john@watersworks.com.


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