Microsoft's Fake Patent Attack: Should You Care?

Does Redmond’s claim prove that Microsoft has Mad Cow disease? Plus: How could Microsoft kill Linux, and how could Linux kill Microsoft?
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A few days ago Fortune ran a story which has been getting broad coverage on the 235 patents that they, and others, believe Open Source infringes. The coverage is, as should have been expected, the typical “Microsoft is evil, put up or shut-up,” kind of thing that typically happens after a statement like this.

What I’d like to suggest is that just maybe this initial article’s tone was more Fortune than Microsoft and that the purpose was not to scare folks away from Open Source but to increase page views. I also write provocative pieces so I understand the need to do this, but people seem to be getting rather worked up for nothing.

This isn’t the only thing out of Microsoft that is causing a lot of excitement. In another piece, Bill Hilf, Microsoft was reported to have said that Free Software is dead, which had a very similar response. That, too, seemed to have a purpose that was less accuracy and more traffic. Given that, in the current world, revenue is tied to traffic, neither should be a surprise.

In short let’s take this opportunity to see if there is really something to be concerned about, and particularly whether Microsoft has some form of Mad Cow disease.

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In reading through the initial Fortune piece, and because I’ve been working with Microsoft for a number of years, my general sense is they were trying to convey the message that they were aggressively licensing, and not using patents to keep people from entering, or competing, in the market. I don’t think they intended to go to war with Open Source and Foss. But that now does seem to be the outcome, regardless of the intent.

The reason I believe this wasn’t their intent is because Microsoft has been going out of its way, of late, to try not to attack Linux, largely because the attacks not only didn’t do them any good, they provide a huge free marketing push for Linux. In short, I think Microsoft now understands that they have largely been the marketing push behind Linux and, as a result, didn’t want to do that anymore. Can’t say I blame them.

In addition, they are still under review by the European Union, who wants them to more aggressively cooperate, and share, their technology with competitors, and Microsoft is trying to showcase they are doing exactly that. Finally, Microsoft has been trying to get the Novell partnership to work and they had to know Novell would not support any aggressive patent move. Popping up talking about enforcing patents would seem just slightly counter-strategic right now, regardless of motive and (with some exceptions) Microsoft does seem to try and not do stupid things.

However, talking about Microsoft wanting to license to others is kind of dull but Microsoft taking on the Free Software World is vastly more interesting. Now Steve Ballmer may, from time to time, take a swipe at Linux (which makes the Linux folks just love him to death) just as Stallman may do foolish things (which the Microsoft people like to see him as visible as possible). But the rank and file, at least at Microsoft, really appear to have learned their lesson and aren’t trying to stir up the hornets’ nest.

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