The recently announced agreement between Microsoft Corporation and Novell, Inc. has resulted in much concern that it could be harmful for Linux and other free software. However, the agreement itself, as well as its timing and comments made by Microsoft executives about it, may actually be a very good thing -- and perhaps even worthy of celebration!
The agreement, which will expire on January 1, 2012, calls for the two companies to work together to build, market and support solutions that will improve the interoperability between their software products and services. Both have also agreed to not assert their patents against the end users of the products and services of the other company. In addition, Microsoft will make a net payment to Novell of several hundred million dollars.1.
Among the reasons that Linux and other free software, as well as their users, could benefit from this agreement are:
(1) The agreement, along with all of the discussion that it is generating, is providing considerable publicity for Linux, as was the case with the SCO fiasco2. This includes articles not only in technical publications but also in the mainstream media. Increased awareness of the existence of Linux (and thus of its numerous advantages3) is an important factor in boosting its use.
(2) The agreement will increase the creditability of Linux, as well as interest in it, among the vast number of businesses and other organizations that to date have used entirely or mainly Microsoft products. Such organizations will interpret this as an endorsement of Linux, including that it is here to stay and something to be taken seriously4. Until now, the message from Microsoft has been the opposite, with numerous statements that Linux (a) destroys intellectual property, (b) is mainly just a reincarnation of an obsolete operating system (i.e., UNIX), (c) is difficult to use and (d) has a higher TCO (total cost of ownership) than Windows. This official recognition, along with the increasingly obvious problems with Microsoft's existing business model and products5, will help convince more businesses and other organizations to consider and choose free software.
(3) The threats made by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer serve as a useful reminder to developers of free software to keep alert as to avoiding potential intellectual property infringements when creating or updating software. Made soon after the agreement was announced, these threats consisted of claims that Linux infringed on Microsoft's patents and that Microsoft would sue Linux users and developers, other than those using or developing Novell's SUSE Linux6.
(4) The agreement and accompanying threats are serving as additional bad publicity in the free software community for an increasingly troubled Microsoft, and the effect will be to further motivate developers and users of free software. People do not like to be threatened or bullied, and they can react strongly to it.
(5) The agreement (including Microsoft's sudden start of cooperation with a formerly bitter rival7) and the accompanying threats could lead to increased antitrust scrutiny and enforcement in various countries. In the U.S., this is now much more likely than before as a result of the recent power shift in Congress to the Democrats (who have traditionally been less tolerant of abusive monopolies than the Republicans). It could also harden the EU's already strict antitrust stance, especially against the background of growing frustration about Microsoft's years of stalling in responding to requests for meaningful documentation, etc. Increased antitrust enforcement could help promote competition in several ways, including by making it easier for hardware vendors to offer computers at lower prices with Linux preinstalled or without any operating system preinstalled8.
(6) The threats surrounding the agreement could also serve as a catalyst to help improve public policy with regard to software patents. For example, they could result in increased resistance to renewed attempts by Microsoft and other corporations to permit the patenting of software in the EU. They could also promote a reexamination of the seriously overburdened and flawed patent system in the U.S.
(7) The agreement and accompanying threats are already having a beneficial effect on free software licensing. This is by helping to clarify the final wording of the GLPv3, the proposed new version of the widely used GNU General Public License. It is also by boosting support for the use of the GPLv3 as a replacement for the current GPLv2 by helping developers understand the subtle but crucial distinction between free software and open source software9, as the situation is serving to demonstrate the vulnerability of open source software that is not truly free software.
Among the most important of the new provisions in the GPLv3 will be one that states that any promises regarding not suing over alleged patent violations that are granted to some set of users for any GPL-licensed product are automatically extended at no monetary cost and with no other obligations to all users of that product. This would make it more difficult for large corporations to take control of a Linux distribution and then attempt to intimidate users of other distributions, as appears to be the case with Microsoft. Although the Linux kernel (i.e., the core of the operating system) itself might not be released under the GLPv310, new versions of hundreds of utility programs (such as glibc and the GCC) that are used together with the kernel and are fundamental to any Linux distribution, will be released under it.
(8) The agreement will serve as another example to developers of Linux and other free software about the dangers of becoming entangled with Microsoft. The strongly negative reaction to this agreement and its appearance as a sellout could adversely affect the sales of Novell's SUSE Linux and other products and could cause a shift to other distributions (i.e., versions)11 of Linux, as was the case with SCO products. Of course, Novell could become a rare exception to Microsoft's historical pattern of embrace and crush if it insists on incorporating the coming GPLv3 versions of programs into SUSE and because of its support by IBM, and thus it could turn out to be a big winner. Either way, it is probably a win-win situation for Linux.
(9) The agreement and accompanying threats could put pressure on Microsoft to reveal the specific patent violations that it is claiming, just as the SCO fiasco eventually revealed that the numerous copyright infringements that SCO claimed were in Linux apparently do not, in fact, exist. There is a near consensus in the free software community that (a) there are few if any clear-cut violations12, (b) any alleged violations should be revealed so that the violating source code can be rewritten and (c) Microsoft is abusing the intentions of the patent system.
(10) The threats accompanying the agreement could further promote the adoption of the OpenDocument format (ODF) as the official document standard by governments, businesses and other organizations around the world. At the same time, they could help weaken the increasingly frantic efforts by Microsoft to block adoption of ODF and to pressure organizations to adopt its controversial Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML) format as a standard. The widespread adoption of the ODF will, of course, play a major role in making Microsoft products less relevant and in increasing the use of Linux, OpenOffice and other free software13.
(11) The increased publicity and credibility for Linux as a result of the agreement will induce more people to study to become Linux system administrators, including many who currently have only have Microsoft Windows skills. This could help reduce the shortage of qualified Linux systems administrators, which has been one of the biggest drags on the growth rate of the deployment of Linux by businesses and other organizations.
(12) IBM has made an official statement that it likes the agreement14. IBM has been Linux's most powerful supporter, and thus this is an important validation of the agreement. At the same time, IBM also clearly stated (a) that there is no patent problem with Linux and (b) that even if there were, it would be settled among developers and vendors and would not affect users15.
(13) Finally, the agreement could even benefit Microsoft, which is not necessarily a bad thing16. However, it is likely that this benefit would not be in the ways that had been intended.
Among the ways that Microsoft could benefit from the agreement are:
(1) The agreement could help protect Microsoft from claims that it has improperly used UNIX technology in its software17. This is because Novell apparently owns the rights to some UNIX source code18 and may also owns a substantial collection of software patents. In this context, it is interesting to speculate as to the real reason that Microsoft has agreed to make such a large a net payment to Novell.
(2) The cooperation with Novell will help give Microsoft staff experience with Linux, which will become increasingly important for Microsoft as the use of Linux continues to expand.
(3) The agreement could generate sales for Microsoft software and services, including providing support for Linux (as IBM has so successfully done). This could help offset its increasing loss of market share for operating systems and office programs to Linux and other free software.
(4) The agreement could supply a much-needed ally for Microsoft in its critical battle to allow its OOXML file format to become a recognized industry standard along side of the increasingly accepted ODF. However, it remains to be seen how effective this will be because of the strong momentum for ODF and the belief that the standard should be based on its merit rather than money.
(5) Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Microsoft, the effects of the agreement could help convince top management that it needs to make radical changes (not just superficial ones) in its attitude and in its business model in order to avoid, or at least minimize, an otherwise inevitable deterioration in its profits and loss of influence. Among them are becoming widely trusted (as IBM has become) and becoming truly innovative19 and developing products that are able to compete on their own merits (i.e., on the basis of quality and price) in an increasingly competitive environment rather than being big sellers only because all of the competition has been destroyed.
2The SCO Group, Inc., a software company in Utah, began suing IBM and others in 2003 claiming that it owned the copyrights to the UNIX source code and that such code had been stolen and used in Linux. SCO also tried to intimidate corporate users of Linux into paying it substantial royalties. Interestingly, SCO has never been able to document any of the thousands of lines of code that it originally claimed were stolen. The case became even more interesting when it turned out that (1) SCO only owned rights to market UNIX and did not own the copyright to the source code itself and (2) that Microsoft was encouraging and providing financial support to SCO. The result was very good for Linux in several ways, including generating a great deal of free publicity and confirming that there were no copyright violations, and it has been a disaster for SCO. The new agreement is referred to by some people as son of SCO or SCO II.
3For a comprehensive list of these advantages, see 25 Reasons to Convert to Linux, The Linux Information Project, January 13, 2006.
4There are still some widely held myths about Linux that have been impeding its adoption, including the belief that it is just produced by bunch of hippies, that there is no reliable support for it and that something that is free cannot be as good as something that is expensive. For a more complete listing of these misconceptions, see The Top 12 Myths About Linux, The Linux Information Project, September 11, 2005.
5This model is based largely on maintaining and expanding a monopoly. However, history has shown that monopolies are almost always doomed to failure in the long run, and it is unlikely that this case will become an exception. The growing threats are obvious, including the emergence of competitors (most notably Linux, Google and Apple) that can no longer by crushed by the anti-competitive and illegal means that were used in the past.
6Among Ballmer's comments during the weeks following the announcement were: "There will be no patent issues [with Novell]. They've appropriately compensated Microsoft for our intellectual property, which is important to us." "In a sense you could say anybody who has got Linux in their data center today sort of has an undisclosed balance sheet liability, because it's not just Microsoft patents." "Only customers that use SUSE have paid properly for intellectual property from Microsoft." "If a customer says, 'Look, do we have liability for the use of your patented work?' Essentially, if you're using non-SUSE Linux, then I'd say the answer is yes." "...the fact that that product uses our patented intellectual property is a problem for our shareholders." "Only customers that use SUSE have paid properly for intellectual property from Microsoft."
7For example, in 2004 Novell filed a suit against Microsoft claiming the company used anti-competitive tactics during the mid-1990s to destroy the market value of its then dominant WordPerfect word processing program. Also, Novell claimed that Microsoft had used illegal tactics to destroy its NetWare network operating system and eventually received a $536 million settlement payment from Microsoft.
8The ability of Microsoft to pressure major vendors of computer hardware to preinstall only Microsoft Windows on their computers and to not sell computers at lower prices with alternative operating systems (e.g., Linux), or no operating system, preinstalled has been a major tactic used by the company to perpetuate its monopoly position. For more about this, see The Naked Truth About "Naked PCs", The Linux Information Project, May 17, 2006.
9Although these two terms are commonly used as synonyms and all free software is open source, recent events clearly illustrate how open source software may become software that is no longer free software. That is, in the very unlikely event that Steve Ballmer were to succeed in his threats against Linux users and require royalty payments, Linux would no longer be free software (either in a monetary sense or with regard to use).
10Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux and still the leader of kernel development, had earlier indicated that he was opposed to the GPLv3. However, recent events might soften his opposition. Also, any decision about changing to the new license would involve not just Torvalds but also the many other contributers to kernel development.
11Among the many distributions from which to choose, Red Hat and the increasingly popular Ubuntu will likely be some of the biggest beneficiaries.
12Because the Linux kernel and other free software that is used together with it are open source, the source code has been rigorously inspected by large numbers of programmers for years and any violations of known intellectual property would have most likely long ago been found and corrected. Also important to keep in mind is the fact that the Linux kernel was developed (beginning in 1991) long before Microsoft Windows was and it is much more likely that the latter has improperly copied technology from the former.
13The battle over the official industry-wide standard for office document formats is, of course, critical for Microsoft's future profitability. This is because a shift from the current de facto closed format (such as .doc) controlled by Microsoft to the open format ODF would greatly reduce Microsoft's ability to lock users into its expensive and immensely profitable operating system and office suite software. Most of Microsoft's other products are big money losers and may remain that way for a long time.
14The agreement was also endorsed by the Open Invention Network (OIN), which was formed to further Linux by acquiring patents and ensuring their availability. For the statements by both IBM and OIN, see IBM sees Novell/MS deal benefiting Linux, Linux-Watch, November 21, 2006.
15There is little if any legal precedent for users of products that contain violations of software copyrights or patents being held liable and having to pay royalties.
16Benefitting Microsoft could be a good thing, even in the eyes of many advocates of free software, if it helps that company to reallocate its massive resources to emphasize developing truly innovative and quality products instead of attempting (increasingly in vain) to protect a doomed monopoly. These resources include its large number of very talented employees, some of whom are our friends and neighbors.
17Many industry experts believe that it is far more likely that Microsoft has inappropriately used intellectual property from Linux and other free software than the other way around. Among the reasons for this are the facts that (1) UNIX and Linux were developed before Microsoft Windows, (2) the source code of Microsoft products is kept secret so that it is difficult to determine the extent of violations, in contrast to the carefully scrutinized source code for free software and (3) Microsoft has a history of being successfully sued for intellectual property and other violations. This is one reason that it is likely that Microsoft's threats about suing Linux users is just bluffing, and not much more. Other reasons include the great likelihood that such suits would provoke reactions from IBM and Oracle, the two powerful and wealthy giants with which Microsoft would be highly reluctant to confront in the legal system. Among the reasons that Microsoft would not like a confrontation with IBM is the fact that the latter is the world's largest patent holder and, with a little provocation, it could easily find that Microsoft is violating some of its patents.
18This came out during the SCO controversy, when SCO was not able to provide any convincing evidence that it owned the code. Apparently, SCO had only acquired the right to market products based on that code.
19Although Microsoft has a huge research and development budget and is accumulating a massive number of patents, questions remain as to the true value of either. Despite its vast wealth, the company's record of innovation pales in comparison to that of Bell Labs (before the breakup of its parent AT&T), IBM and Xerox PARC, and very few, if any, major advances in the computer field are attributable to Microsoft. See, for example, The 30 Greatest Computer Advances, The Linux Information Project, June 5, 2006. But it need not be this way were there to be a fundamental (but extremely painful) shift in company policy; that is, there is still a window of opportunity for Microsoft to become the next Bell Labs and leave a truly great legacy because of its virtually unprecedented financial resources. This is not to say that it is likely, but merely to say that it is possible.
Created November 27, 2006.