The Microsoft-Novell Deal and Trust in Princes: Page 2


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

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We may have seen an example of this behavior last week, when Red Hat and its community distribution Fedora were issuing vague but ominous warnings not to use the company repositories until further notice, because of what eventually turned out to be a security breach. Until the announcement, Red Hat and Fedora seemed perfect examples of how well corporate and FOSS interests could co-exist. But last week, with Red Hat's security at risk as well as Fedora's, suddenly the Fedora chair, through no fault of his own, was reduced to sounding like a corporate apologist, issuing vague pronouncements and refusing to provide details.

Faced with the crisis, Red Hat-Fedora chose to respond from a business rather than a FOSS perspective, and probably had very little choice in the matter. All the same, it is in stark contrast to how quickly the Debian distribution moved to acknowledge and correct its own security problems last May.

What intrigues me about the Red Hat-Fedora crisis is how closely the anger in some Fedora circles resembles that over the extension of the Microsoft-Novell deal. It is not as intense, and Fedora is trusted far more in the community than Novell, but the sense of betrayal is much the same in both cases. It comes, I think, from the mixture of distrust and faith that the FOSS community displays towards business.

When you hold such mutually exclusive feelings, it is easy to jump from one to another. Feelings of betrayal come very easily when you are already halfway to mistrusting already. The fact that you trusted at all may only make you all the more angry.

Crime and No Punishment

In the case of Novell's agreements with Microsoft, I suspect that much of the original anger stemmed from the fact that many regarded Novell's purchase of the popular SuSE distribution as a kind of community trust, while Novell saw it as simply another potentially profitable acquisition. When this disregard of community feeling was joined by dealing with the always-hated Microsoft, the response was only predictable.

Since then, Novell has walked softly in the community. Many, too, may have believed that the provisions of the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) specifically designed to block similar deals in the future to have put the company in its place. After all, Novell needs to obey the license if it is going to distribute a GNU/Linux distribution.

But, the truth is that, by preventing similar deals, the GPL has given Novell a commercial advantage until its original deal with Microsoft expires four years from now. From a purely business perspective, what is more logical than using that advantage as strongly as possible while you still can? The community, though, would rather see repentance or utter ostracization, both of which are far more emotionally exciting than accepting that corporations are going to act like corporations, no matter what FOSS affiliations they have.

What the community needs to be more aware of is that the interaction between FOSS and business is an alliance of convenience. The two can certainly co-exist, and both can benefit from doing so. But, forced to choose, the average FOSS-based business is going to choose business interests over FOSS every time. No company's values are those of a FOSS advocate -- at least, not for very long -- and assuming that they are is simply a mistake in logic.

From this perspective, the extension of the Microsoft-Novell deal is not only predictable, but routine. Really, it's no more than business as usual. The only surprising thing is that many of us in the FOSS community haven't realized that yet.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Novell

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