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Microsoft Wants to Build, Not Burn, IP Bridge

Microsoft's Jason Matusow is a man who knows his way around both licensing and interoperability standards. Formerly the head of Microsoft's Shared Source initiative, Matusow now helps lead Microsoft's standards efforts to make good on its promise of interoperability by design.

But there is that pesky problem of patents, that Microsoft alleges certain Linux and open source code may be infringing upon.

"We think software intellectual property [IP] is critically important and has a great deal of value, but we want it to be quality IP and not just something to block other people from doing stuff," Matusow told internetnews.com. "IP can become a pivot point for collaboration."

Jason Matusow
Jason Matusow

A key point of collaboration and interoperability is also the role of standards organizations. Matusow noted that Microsoft in any given year has between 150 and 200 standards bodies and working groups that they are actively engaged with.

Standards play a part in the broader discussion of interoperability, but it's also the implementation that needs to happen.

"Customers don't buy the standard; they buy the solution that has value to them and they perceive value in a lot of different ways," Matusow said. "The fact that a standard is part of it may well be a piece they consider in the value stack but it won't be the deciding factor. So it's always interplay."

Even with a standard in place, there are competing implementations. Matusow argued that there will always be a natural tension that exists in the marketplace between vendors and interoperability. If customers call for vendor A and vendor B technologies to work together to some extent, the vendors want to solve that problem for their customers.

"But if in the process of solving the interoperability problem they remove that which makes their product uniquely valuable, you've just removed a way they can sell their product successfully into the market," Matusow said. "The simple fact is people want unique solutions."

Matusow then used Linux as a case in point.

"With Red Hat and Novell there are more than a million engineering changes between their two products," Matusow alleged. "Do customers expect them to be interoperable because they're both Linux? Sure. But the vendors have to carve out a niche."

The interoperability collaboration between Microsoft and Novell is all about customer demand in Matusow's view. Enterprises are running heterogeneous systems and a solution is necessary.

Though Microsoft's Linux deal is specifically with Novell, it could end up helping other Linux vendors, as well. Matusow agreed that by virtue of working on interoperability with Novell, there will be lessons learned that will be helpful in a broader Linux context as well.

Then again a key part of the Novell-Microsoft deal is about patent protection. It's a protection that does not extend beyond Novell's Linux users. In that respect patents could well be a barrier to interoperability.

"Part of the idea of patents is that you have exclusive rights to an invention, and yes it could be used as a barrier," Matusow said.

Being a barrier is not Microsoft's intention, according to Matusow. He said the options for Microsoft are to not share, to litigate or to license. If Microsoft does nothing, the value of the IP could potentially erode.

"Our first and best option is licensing," Matusow said. "Microsoft pays out more than a billion dollars to clear our products for sale in the marketplace so that we're respecting other companies' IP.

"It's not about pulling out the enforcement stick," Matusow continued. "We're looking for ways to build bridges, not burn them."

The open source community has called on Microsoft to identify which patents are allegedly being infringed, but that's not something Microsoft is likely to do anytime soon.

"There are normal business processes to do patent cross-licensing," Matusow explained. "The way they negotiate, generally speaking, is you don't lay them on the table and say, 'Here you are why don't you go around them?' That's not how the negotiation process works."