RealTime IT News

Microsoft-Novell: Bad Omen For Open Source Linux

Analysis: Yesterday's surprising announcement by Microsoft and Novell on Linux is very good news for Novell.

It could also be very bad news for open source Linux.

Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft and Novell are supposed to work together on interoperability and patents, such as its inter-office suite (Office to OpenOffice).

Certainly, interoperability and patent protection are goals that everyone running a heterogeneous IT infrastructure longs for.

But instead of embracing standards and software freedom, Microsoft embraced Novell with one arm and waved an accusing finger with the other, warning others to fall in line.

Novell will surely benefit in the short term from mainstream enterprises, and Microsoft will as well. Yes, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer is officially acknowledging that Linux is valid. Or is he?

During the press conference yesterday, Ballmer said: "We don't license our intellectual property to Linux. That's not a possibility."

So, instead of Microsoft creating an open standard or simply adhering to an open standard, Novell will essentially pay some form of royalty to Microsoft for the right to utilize Microsoft's intellectual property.

That implies that Linux is in some way already infringing on Microsoft's intellectual property; and therein lies the rub.

By embracing Novell and, as Ballmer referred to it, "Novell's version of Linux," Microsoft will effectively create a divide in the open source community. Those groups that are part of Novell's development ecosystem will benefit from the Microsoft partnership and protection from patent risk.

Others will not have that protection. Ballmer himself said so.

Whose Linux?

Though Novell is a valuable and key contributor to Linux, Novell is not responsible for all of Linux itself.

Linux is the result of a large community of contributors and vendors whose collective contributions make it a strong operating system. By alienating or raising patent doubts with others, the collective spirit will be harmed.

Samba lies at the heart of the issue. Samba is the open source technology that enables Linux servers to interoperate with Windows counterparts for file sharing. Microsoft has long argued that Samba in some way infringes on Microsoft's IP.

Novell will now have patent protection from Microsoft with its use of Samba. Every other commercial Linux vendor will not.

In an interview with internetnews.com earlier this year Bill Hilf, the man who ran Microsoft's Linux and Open Source Software Lab, said Samba does a lot under the guise of interoperability but is really an ability to clone.

"They ask things of us and we say, 'That's our IP. And they say you should do it because all software should be free," Hilf said in the interview. "Once you subscribe to that [Richard] Stallman vision, that all software should be free, there is very little return on the discussion in terms of how productive it will be. You just agree to disagree and walk away."

With an agreement in place with Novell, will Microsoft now turn around and attempt to sue all other commercial users of Samba? If Novell is willing to pay for patent protection, shouldn't everyone else?

Under that reasoning, every other commercial Linux vendor -- Red Hat, Ubuntu, Mandriva, Oracle and even IBM and HP as well as countless storage and appliance vendors that use Samba --are now in Microsoft's line of legal fire.

The Interoperability Gambit

As mentioned, Microsoft and Novell are also supposed to work together on office suite interoperability. Yet, historically speaking, the best way to achieve interoperability is with open standards. Think about the internet itself, http, DNS, IPv4, Ethernet and countless other technologies that are ubiquitous and critical to the foundation of the modern internet are all open standards.

If Microsoft truly subscribed to the Open Document Format (ODF) and to (truly) open and free file formats, there would be no need for Novell to partner with Microsoft on that issue. Everyone, be it Microsoft or Novell, IBM, Sun, Oracle, HP or Adobe, could use the format since it's by definition interoperable.

But Novell had to make a move of some sort to protect its Linux business, especially with Oracle standardizing on Red Hat and directly attacking Red Hat last week with full RedHat support. Novell was probably feeling a little left out.

To be fair, Novell's CEO Ron Hovsepian said yesterday that the Microsoft talks had been ongoing since March and April of this year. Still, the timing of the announcement can hardly be coincidental.

It is also somewhat interesting to note that the deal was announced barely a month after Ray Noorda, Novell's former CEO and erstwhile competitor to Microsoft, passed away.

Novell now has a critical differentiator against all other Linux vendors. It has the explicit patent risk protection from Microsoft and the explicit support of Microsoft for interoperability. There is little doubt that many mainstream enterprises will now find Novell's Linux offerings even more attractive than before.

Certainly Red Hat indemnifies its customers against patent risk as does IBM and HP. Yet only Novell currently is the only Linux vendor endorsed by Microsoft.

Novell's partnership is not so much about the ideals of software freedom as it is a calculated business decision for Microsoft. Instead of being the enemy of Linux, Microsoft can now position itself as the enemy of those that it claims don't respect its intellectual property.

On on hand, the Novell/Microsoft partnership could be seen as Microsoft saying "can't we all just get along."

On the other hand, Microsoft's deal with Novell could be considered a masterful stroke by Microsoft to divide and perhaps ultimately prevail over Linux.