Love and war: the Microsoft patent deals

Few events have created more fodder for the blogosphere, more fuel for Microsoft critics and more emotional responses than the Microsoft patent deals with Novell, Linspire and Xandros. While putting together a list of things people hate about these deals is easy, generating a list of positive aspects is much harder. So I tried to take a more balanced approach and put together a love/hate list about these deals.

The love list (or at least, “might like”):

  • Increased awareness of the FOSS movement and software by those who have never heard of it. I have lost count of the people who are unaware of FOSS. However, I noticed something interesting tonight in our local Barnes and Noble Bookstore. The Linux book section is about three times larger than it used to be not too long ago. Also, there was The Official Ubuntu Book (by Benjamin Mako Hill, Peter Savage, David J. Murphy, Jono Bacon and Corey Burger) on an end-cap display alongside two Windows Vista books. Ubuntu’s popularity and an increasingly technologically savvy population are other factors contributing to this phenomenon. But articles on FOSS and Microsoft creeping into the mainstream (see two Fortune magazine articles in the hate list below) only helps educate people on FOSS’s alternatives to Microsoft.
  • Growth within the marketplace. Novell claimed in May that they gained 40,000 new subscriptions and that Microsoft was their number one sales channel in the first quarter. That might be good for Novell, but not necessarily the FOSS community. However, the Alfresco Open Source Barometer published in July indicated beginning in March 2007, RHEL growth rates exceeded Novell SUSE (and probably at their expense). Whether motivated by positive or negative reactions to the agreements, GNU/Linux has experienced some recent growth.
  • One less area for owners of smaller businesses to worry about. I’ve worked for some smaller companies and have an appreciation that the owner is also the COO, CFO, Accounts Payable department and Janitor. Many business owners in this market segment will like the comfort of one less potential lawsuit. While arguably a short-sighted viewpoint, a significant portion of a country’s economy is driven by small businesses.
  • The promise of improved interoperability. More of a hope right now, it remains to be seen if this promise really amounts to anything beyond some tools such as the Open XML Translator for

The hate list

  • Tactics straight out of the Godfather. I can just hear the dialogue “if you don’t pay up, something bad is going to happen.” This threat plus the failure to publicly identify the supposed 235 patent violations smells strongly of coercion for money instead of an honest concern over patent violations.
  • The patent agreements coupled with the recently updated GPLv3 take us one step closer to Mutually Assured Destruction. With Microsoft actively growing their patent portfolio, the FSF continuing to adapt the GPL license and the Open Invention Network (OIN) setting up its own FOSS friendly patent portion; you just wonder when the lawsuits begin.
  • Failure to understand and work with the FOSS community. For a company that can be very competent in so many other areas, it is almost painful to watch Microsoft flail around trying to figure out FOSS. Their public comments around FOSS the last few months border on the schizophrenic.
  • The rules change depending on whether Microsoft likes you (China) or does not (GNU/Linux). Just check out the July 23 issue of Fortune magazine. In China, Microsoft charges very little for its Windows operating system and Office applications and has basically given up on defending its intellectual property in China. In fact, the article points out that tolerating software piracy is part of the long-term market strategy. Yet check out Steve Ballmer’s quotes in the May 28 issue of Fortune: “We live in a world where we honor, and support the honoring of, intellectual property”, FOSS users will have to “play by the same rules as the rest of business”, “What’s fair is fair.” Hmmm.
  • Nothing new, it’s just more FUD again.

As easy as it is to pick sides or spin scenarios, only one thing is certain: This saga is far from complete. Only time will tell what happens with these specific agreements and with software patents in general.


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