Ask the Expert

The future of Linux, Microsoft and patents

What do you think the refusal of companies like Red Hat, Canonical and Mandriva to partner with Microsoft will mean to their respective futures? Do you think it will affect them positively or negatively?

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At the moment, Red Hat is cooperating with Microsoft in ways that would benefit its users (such as working on interoperability of JBoss with Microsoft components like Active Directory and SQL Server), but the terms of the current Microsoft/Linux deals include the infamous patent immunity terms, and Red Hat is highly unlikely to accept anything like that.

As I have said repeatedly, the threat of patent suit works only because it is vague; a real suit would involve the uncertainties of going to court. Furthermore, Red Hat has the money to make a real fight of it. Red Hat made clear its repudiation of immunity from Microsoft patent-infringement suits when the Novell/Microsoft announcement was made. Red Hat does offer patent infringement indemnification to its customers. It did so originally because of the effect of the muttered Microsoft patent-suit menaces on customers and prospects, not because it believes that Linux infringes any Microsoft patents. Since the Microsoft/Novell deal, this indemnification should serve to remove any competitive advantage Novell and others might think they gain from their Microsoft partnerships.

Canonical (Ubuntu) and Mandriva have expressed their distaste for deals with Microsoft, but it is possible that they were never approached. Because their headquarters are overseas, where software patents have no power, a lawsuit would be more complicated. Microsoft could of course sue U.S. users of these distros, but that would put Microsoft in an odd position. First, as I've said, Microsoft has no intention of losing the weapon of vague threats (the basis of FUD) by reaching for a lawsuit with substance. Second, the users of these distros tend to be small folks, and Microsoft would find itself painted as a bully. Third, the Linux Foundation and other groups would contribute whatever resources were necessary to wage an effective fight.

So much for the sensationalism.

The real question regarding the future of Linux distros that are not associated with Microsoft is whether they will be able to benefit competitively from the close cooperation on interoperability development that Microsoft says it is undertaking with its Linux partner companies. The interoperability would presumably be in a proprietary middleware (not in the operating system) which would be locked or otherwise made unavailable to non-preferred customers. No one expects Microsoft to learn deep Linux secrets from Novell and the others, but Microsoft will contribute its secret knowledge of the innards of Windows and OpenXML in order to achieve the interoperability. We will then watch Linux developers reverse engineer these components. Their doing so might be Microsoft's best moment for a patent suit, although I believe it would take a desperate Microsoft to try it.

If Microsoft does improve the working together of Linux and Windows, that is a good thing for users. And as long as the companies that are not privileged to use the Microsoft solutions can keep up with the improvements, it will be a good thing for them, too.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) believes the complicated provisions of its proposed GPLv3 can either defeat the Microsoft strategy by using its complicated GPLv3 provisions to freeze out certain Linux companies that make deals with Microsoft. If the FSF were correct, the Linux companies that shunned Microsoft would be the only Linux players left. Of any of the scenarios, this is the longest shot of all, but we'll see. In any event, there has not been such a shakeup of a large company by a small one since Microsoft stuck it to IBM.

This was first published in July 2007

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