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Open source communities, adoption and the Microsoft-Novell deal

What purpose do open source advocacy groups serve? Open source issues and strategies expert Don Rosenberg says that the biggest help that organizations like the Linux Foundation can offer is in interoperability and legal protection.

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Then, Rosenberg goes on to talk about the Open Source Alliance and how the Microsoft-Novell deal impacts the community and Linux adoption.

Why should people care about cooperative projects like the Linux Foundation or the Open Source Alliance (OSA) ?

Don Rosenberg: One reason for cooperative projects like OSA is the growing market share of Linux and the opportunity to eat Microsoft's lunch. While there is always competition in business, it makes no sense to spend time fighting each other when there is more to be gained from fighting Microsoft. I don't have figures in front of me, but at some point the slippage of Microsoft market share will move from steady nibbling to accelerating decline. If it hasn't already happened, cooperation will speed the day, and there will be rich pickings for everyone.

Some Linux fans object to the Linux Foundation on principle (it's sponsored by large businesses), but if you think back to the starting of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), about ten years ago it was a group of geeky Linux fans who believed that Linux could succeed only if it received commercial adoption. Yes, ugly things happen in the commercial battle (SCO lawsuit). Who can say Linux is not better off for the contributions of large firms like IBM and HP? The OSI deliberately sought to lose the narrow focus and political baggage of Free Software, and (despite some critics) the Linux Foundation is not about to put "Free Software" in its name for the same reasons.

Linux is the great motor of open source software, so it is perfectly appropriate to use its name. The Linux Foundation's CTO, by the way, is Ian Murdock, the "ian" in Debian, known as the least commercial of the widely-known Linux distributions. Like the OSA, the Linux Foundation is set up to provide a unified force in the battle with Microsoft. It will coordinate and organize the efforts of previously separate organizations dealing with patents, desktops, standards and promotion. What does any of this mean for the IT department?

The biggest help the Foundation can give will be in interoperability and legal protection. Interoperability problems have been steadily lessening. For instance, an application may run on all distributions, but it may achieve this by installing its own (duplicates of existing) libraries, fonts, etc. because it is not certain where they may be found in all distributions. Further cooperation between KDE and GNOME is also part of the plan. The Linux Foundation may well have more power to persuade hardware manufacturers to cooperate in the making of drivers open enough to be incorporated into the Linux kernel, rather than the present system in which different distributions modify the kernel in different ways as they add their own driver solutions. And how many times have you found it simpler to start from scratch rather than try to upgrade when a new kernel is released?

Probably the most important help the Foundation can give to Linux is to provide a legal entity with standing and funding to take on any patent problems. A larger war chest to pay lawyers, a fuller locker of patents to cross-license,and greater ability to search for prior art to invalidate patents are all badly needed.

Whis is the Open Source Alliance? What does this mean to IT departments?

Rosenberg: The Open Source Alliance (OSA) is a trade group and represents the members, all of whom hope to sell their Linux products to the corporate sector. I don't know exactly how they will work together day-to-day, but fundamentally they will guarantee interoperability and perhaps work cooperatively on sales. A company that needs SpikeSource may well need JasperSoft, etc.

So their interest is obvious, but what is the interest of IT departments? It may be that the OSA will present something like a single-source face to the IT department. Problems will not result in round-robin finger-pointing. Ideally, there would be some central, problem-solving facility that would get trouble-tickets worked on cooperatively. Financially, I don't know how that would be arranged, but approached in the proper spirit (if everyone works hard everyone will benefit) such an arrangement could work. CollabNet may very well be the implementation arm of the organization.

The industry force behind this collaboration is the emergence of the software stack as the place where value is added.

Do you think the Microsoft-Novell will help to increase Linux usage because of collaboration between the open source/Linux community and Microsoft on products?

Rosenberg: I don't think Microsoft will be actively promoting Linux. They can tell customers who have Microsoft shops with a some Linux machines (most people, nowadays) that there is no need to go anywhere other than Microsoft for IT needs. Microsoft can supply SUSE in those cases where Linux is needed. At the same, time they can poach other Linux distros' customers: Wal-Mart is going to convert its Linux machines from Red Hat to SUSE so that Microsoft can service everything. This parallels Oracle's Linux strategy: as long as Oracle is doing the database, why not do the whole stack?

So, I don't think Microsoft is going to grow the number of Linux users, at least not in a very big way. But they are in a position to cash in when their customers gradually turn more of their machines away from Microsoft and toward Linux. And this substitution strategy is not the crux of the Microsoft strategy. At the present time, Microsoft supports Wal-Mart by selling them coupons good for help from SUSE. Microsoft got these at no dollar cost simply by agreeing not to sue Novell over undisclosed patents that Microsoft implies are infringed by Linux. This parallels the SCO strategy: pay me and I'll leave you alone.

This is the heart of the matter. Microsoft frightens Wal-Mart into becoming a SUSE user, and makes everyone nervous about using Linux, for reasons that can't be clearly expressed and assessed. Since Microsoft's patent claims against Linux are merely rumor, it can't hurt to repeat what is also merely rumor: that Microsoft is even now quietly making the rounds among large companies and collecting tribute.

And there is more excitement to come: the word "collaboration" normally makes me think of Penguins. In this case, it reminds me of Vichy -- Novell will have an exclusive arrangement with Microsoft to work out real, genuine, patent-blessed interoperability with SUSE. Will other distros have access to this code?

Certainly, more interoperatibility between Microsoft and Linux software would help Linux spread. Samba and OpenOffice have been working on this for years. It's that Microsoft's "blessing" of SUSE as the only legitimate Linux is not the way to compete in the open source marketplace. The problem is not that Microsoft wants to sell services for the Linux in its customers' IT operations, or that Oracle wants to kick Red Hat out of its customers' shops. The problem is that Microsoft is competing not on service or convenience, but by softly breathing Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt over the entire Linux landscape.

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This was first published in April 2007

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