I have to admit, I cannot make sense of the recent moves made by Microsoft in the open-source software world. A few months ago, they signed a patent indemnity deal with Novell, agreeing not to sue Novell’s customers for patent infringements. At that time, it seemed like this was just a scare tactic, not unlike what SCO has tried to do in the past. Last week, however, there was more news from the Microsoft camp. Microsoft signed similar deals with Xandros and LG Electronics. Both Novell and Xandros have stated that their agreements with Microsoft do not implicitly mean that Linux is infringing upon Microsoft’s patents. This seems quite counterintuitive to me — if there is no known patent violation, why would Novell and Xandros get into such an agreement with Microsoft in the first place?
A recent article in New York Times points out how Microsoft has changed its tune in the last 16 years. In 1991, when Microsoft was a much smaller company, trying to compete with the IBM and Novell, Bill Gates spoke out against the issue of being able to patent obvious software techniques. Now that Microsoft is a behemoth with a large patent portfolio, it is going after others for patent infringement.
It is unclear to me how Microsoft can hope to gain from these patent claims. Having recently being on the receiving end of a patent infringement lawsuit, Microsoft fully understands the waste of time and money that goes into litigation. Also, even if Microsoft does go after the companies/people who they claim violate their patents, they cannot hope to extract too much money out of it. Their only hope is to scare people into paying license fees, but that ploy also cannot work for too long without actually providing any proof of patent infringement.
To be certain, there is one aspect of these agreements that the Linux community does not talk too much about and that is the actual effort to improve interoperability between Windows and Linux. Microsoft has ignored open source and discounted the viability of Linux for a long time. Linux has not reached a stage when it cannot be ignored any longer, so Microsoft needs to deal with it by being able to work with Linux instead of working against it. To this end, they have hired a Linux veteran to lead the interoperability effort. The cynic in me, however, cannot help doubting Microsoft’s stated intentions. Microsoft has a reputation for embracing and extending global standers and their competitors’ technologies. This could be more of the same.
Nothing would please me more to see some honest competition between Microsoft and the open source world. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and a competition on pure technical merit will only improve software on the whole which benefits everyone. If, however, Microsoft tries to use arm twisting tactics, it is unlikely that Microsoft will succeed. Unlike Microsoft’s traditional competitors, the Linux corporate backers and the community are too big and too widespread to coerce.