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Whatever the case in the long run, when Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith told Fortune that open source software violates 235 Microsoft patents, it sent tremors through the tech industry.
Its going to create a lot of shock waves, says IDC analyst Al Gillen, who notes that this kind of move has been expected from Microsoft sooner or later.
While Microsoft has made similar claims before as in a 2004 speech by Steve Ballmer this time is different, Gillen tells Datamation. Putting a hard number to it and starting to be a lot more specific about it, begins to narrow down the discussion.
And with those numbers, corporate buyers of open source software have been put on notice. If Microsoft begins to drive any kind of litigation or any further action, theres going to be an awful lot of commotion in the industry, Gillen says.
As Gartner analyst George Weiss notes, Redmonds move is reminiscent of the SCO Groups claims that Linux infringed on its intellectual property. Excerpt this time were not dealing with SCO, were dealing with Microsoft a far larger and more sophisticated opponent.
A Cudgel Against GPL 3 (Stallmans Blunder)
When Microsoft and Linux vendor Novell formed an alliance last November (presumably to help Windows and Linux software become more interoperable) it created the oddest of odd bedfellows. Not surprisingly, Microsoft brought a very proprietary sense of software licensing to the deal which quickly upset the drafters of the General Public License.
Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, has announced that the next version of GPL, GPL v3, would eliminate such deals. Its unclear when GPL v3 will be finalized, but Weiss feels confident that it will exclude pacts like Microsft-Novell.
In response, Microsofts claim of 235 patent infringements is, a retaliatory measure by Microsoft against Stallmans GPL initiative, Weiss says. There using this as a cudgel against the GPL 3 that Stallman is trying to create, which would effectively, over time, cut out Microsoft and the agreement they have with Novell.
But in the storys oddest twist, Richard Stallman himself announced that a thorough study found that the Linux kernel infringed on 283 patents. (For a transcript of the speech in which Stallman announces that, go here. He does not mention Microsoft specifically.) Stallman, Weiss says, made what I think is a critical mistake in announcing that he found some 283 violations thats the worst thing he could do.
So he put the whole Linux market on edge right there. Microsoft, of course, is trumpeting Stallmans comments about Linux violations.
Clearly, Redmonds strategy isnt intended to provoke warm fuzzies among Linux proponents. Microsofts efforts to exert control over the Linux market absolutely infuriates Richard Stallman and the Linux market and the open source community in general, Weiss says.
If theres anything they cant stand, its an outside third party dictating to the users what open source applications they should be employing and thats exactly what Microsoft is doing. Theyre interfering with the open source decisions of the user community in a threatening way.
Microsoft, though it has listed the number of alleged violations, remains vague about their exact nature. At this point this is all a game of poker in which no cards have been shown.
When Microsoft gets explicit about what they feel the infringements are, I believe you would find the Linux community fairly responsive to address the things that are legitimate infringements, Gillen says. Adds Weiss: If its just lines of code, obviously the Linux community thinks they can just swipe out the offending code and put other code in there.
However, Weiss says, Microsoft is making it known that in its opinion these are not pure lines of infringement these are design patent infringements.
If the Linux community wants to redress these infringements, theyll probably have to take out huge blocks from the kernel, and remake it, he says. And as far as Microsoft is concerned, if they had to do that, it would bring Linux down to its knees and it would never recover.
The Big Question
The defining question in Microsofts patent claims is: what will Redmond actually do about these alleged violations?
The company, in an email response to internetnews about the matter, says its goal is not to litigate but to license its intellectual property to Linux users. The company expects to collect royalties from end users, or alternately, ink cross-licensing deals in which companies would allow Microsoft to access their patents. (In 2003, Microsoft launched a licensing unit, and has created cross-licensing pacts with the likes of SAP, Toshiba and Sun.)
But that strategy appears to be limited. Only a percentage of Fortune 1000 companies are tech firms that Microsoft could sign cross-licensing deals with. The other corporations, across retail, finance and other sectors, would presumably be asked to pay royalties. But without some threat of litigation, however hypothetical, why would a large number of companies agree to pay Microsoft licensing fees for using Linux and open source?
And for Microsoft to launch litigation based on these supposed violations has gaping pitfalls. One obvious flaw: large end users of Linux are often also large end users of Windows.
Lets face it, Gillen says. If you take any customer who uses a lot of Linux in their backend operations, Ill bet theyre a big Microsoft shop in the front end. So Microsoft has to be careful that they dont go out an initiate a lot of litigation against their own customers.
You drive the customers away with that kind of behavior.
These factors make actual Microsoft litigation appear unlikely. Notes Gillen: Who are they going to sue? Even if they sued, say, Red Hat, and they take one hundred percent of Red Hats revenue, when you talk about the kind of costs that Microsoft would incur for this kind of litigation there would be no real financial gain.
Weiss says that what Microsoft really wants, rather than royalties, is to get large Linux users to buy into the agreement that Microsoft has with Novell, and to purchase SUSE Linux rather than any other Linux.
Its a step by step process of fighting Stallman, intimidating the market, and trying to create a flow of momentum toward Novell SUSE, he says.
Its not necessarily that Novell has to be the winner, but if Novell gets bigger and more powerful, then they hope that Red Hat will maybe come into line. Or, if they dont come into line, then the market gets more fragmented between multiple Linux distributions, and maybe the users will find that its better to go with a homogeneous approach like Microsofts.
Microsoft is saying, We will protect you if you go with SUSE, a stance that could conceivably cause some migration away from Red Hat, he says. Then Red Hat stock plummets, and Novell becomes more of an important distributor. Theres confusion in the market, migration going on from one distribution to another, and Microsoft sits on the sidelines watching the jousting.
Gladiators in the Ring
Certainly the open source community has defensive measures in progress. Among other tactics, the Open Invention Network is gathering a portfolio of patents. Some observers suggest that, if Microsoft were to litigate, the OIN would reply by taking legal action against Windows based on this accumulated IP. Its a counter attack portfolio, Weiss says.
At the end of the day, Microsofts motivation is partially saber rattling, Gillen says. The company wants to protect its brand from encroachments by Linux and other open source software. Theyre creating a certain amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Its about protecting against the lost revenue they would experience if Linux damages their position in the market, he says. Thats really what its about.
Notes Weiss: So we have a multiple number of scenarios there, and its really like two gladiators in the arena or multiple gladiators, feeling each other out, stomping around the ring, and making some noises and threats. But nobodys thrusting yet. So far, Theyre positioning.