Ballmer Bearish on Linux

UPDATED: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer urged Asian government leaders not to take sides in the Linux versus Windows debate.

“We recommend to all governments that they not get emotionally involved in preferring either software that comes from commercial companies or Open Source software,” Ballmer told a group of Asian government leaders on Thursday. “We think the most sensible policy for most governments to take is a policy of neutrality, picking the software for a given application that actually makes most sense relative to the government’s needs,” he said.

Ballmer was addressing the Government Leaders Forum, held November 18 in Singapore. He responded to a questioner who said Asian governments support open source software because of licensing costs and because they can see the source code.

Ballmer pointed out that licensing costs may be only a small percentage of the total cost of ownership of a piece of software. “You’ve got to install it, you’ve got to deploy it, you’ve got to develop for it, you’ve got to manage it, you’ve got to create and buy applications from it, and all of those costs are probably about 90 percent of the total cost,” he said.

Ballmer said governments should remain neutral and evaluate software on its own merits. “Taking a position [on] open source versus commercial software is almost like taking a position on which economic model for society is better,” he said.

But Ballmer’s allusion to a recent report on issues with Linux sparked emotion among those who saw them as a threat to governments considering open source software.

“Open Source software does not today respect the intellectual property rights of any intellectual property holder,” Ballmer told the group of government leaders. “There was a report out this summer by an Open Source group that highlighted that Linux violates over 228 patents. Some day, for all countries that are entering WTO, somebody will come and look for money to pay for the patent rights for that intellectual property.”

In August, Open Source Risk Management (OSRM) said an analysis of the Linux kernel found 283 patents that could cover the basic open-source operating system. Microsoft holds 27 of the patents identified by the group, which provides consulting services as well as vendor-neutral indemnification to clients.

But Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and counsel to the OSRM, said that number is more an indication of problems in the U.S. patent system than of actual intellectual property risks in the software.

“He totally mischaracterized [the report],” Ravicher said. “It wasn’t a conclusion that any of the patents were valid or actually infringed upon.”

Stephen O’Grady, an analyst with IT research firm RedMonk, said that while there certainly are IP potential patent infringement risks associated with open source software, “I don’t know they’re materially diff than those faced by proprietary software vendors.” He pointed out the recent $92 million settlement that Sun Microsystems paid Eastman Kodak to settle a claim that Sun’s Java programming language infringed on three Kodak patents.

Redmond has taken up the intellectual property issue in its two-year white paper war waged against open source software with a campaign called “Get the Facts on Windows and Linux.” The campaign, which includes both Microsoft-funded and independent comparisons of the total cost of ownership of open source and Microsoft software, aims to combat the notion that there are no costs to enterprises that use open source software.

Linux advocates charged that some analyses were tainted because Microsoft had commissioned them. In August, a UK advertising watchdog ordered Microsoft to pull an adtouting results of a server test conducted by META Group because the ad was misleading.

In early November, Microsoft expanded the scope of its intellectual property protection policy to cover all customers. It said it would defend any covered claim and pay any resulting damage awards or settlements relating to its software. Customers are covered retroactively for software they’ve already purchased.

After SCO sued IBM for allegedly transferring UNIX code it licensed into the Linux kernel, open source software vendors including Novell began indemnifying customers against potential infringement suits. Microsoft claimed its indemnification program was now better than Novell’s, while Novell , supplier of the SUSE Linux distribution, put up a Web site of its own, a sort of “Get the facts on Get the Facts.”

Ravicher said that Microsoft’s indemnification is included in the price of its software, so customers already are paying for it. “It’s not like Microsoft is going to defend you for free,” he said. “In open source, OSRM and other companies are offering a menu of options for users to select from, while with proprietary software, you’re forced to buy it from the vendor.”

O’Grady said there aren’t enough facts in Microsoft’s Get the Facts campaign — nor in competitors’ responses to it. “They amount to cherry-picking favorable statistics to your particular approach or product line… Anybody can collect a couple of data points to support their argument,” he said. “A more objective and measured look is required — and you won’t get that from the vendors.”

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