Editor 13-Nov-06
Novell Screws Up Big
Agreement with Microsoft


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You just cannot do something this dumb without an MBA degree. November 2, 2006 Novell and Microsoft announced a collaboration agreement regarding patents in which Microsoft agreed not to sue Novell's customers over patents it owns. In return Microsoft will be able to use certain Novell patents (E1). The actual agreement is less significant than its repercussions.

Novell apparently expected this agreement to be a competitive differentiator for their SUSE Linux in competition with Red Hat and other Linux distributions. It's a differentiator all right, and it's done severe and immediate damage to Novell.

The Linux and other FOSS (Free / Open Source Software) communities consider this agreement divisive, dangerous and a weasel worded attempt to do an end run around the GPL (General Public License) under which Linux is distributed. These communities have been very vocal in their disapproval (E2, E3, E4).

Whether there is actually any substance to this agreement is still a matter of discussion and debate, but that's completely beside the point, the damage to Novell has already been done.

Novell has staked its future on Linux, bought Linux distributor SUSE, has been developing a Linux desktop suite for corporate customers and has been moving NetWare services to the Linux platform. Now Novell has severely compromised its own future and its effectiveness as a Microsoft competitor.

Novell can not be an effective developer and distributor of Linux and other FOSS software without the good will and cooperation of the involved communities. Linux enthusiasts also exercise considerable influence over which distribution is used in the corporations they work for. Novell needs to back off from this agreement as quickly as possible - but Microsoft probably knew exactly the hot water Novell would be in and has probably done its legal best to cut off all escape.

Further, the agreement indemnifies not Novell but Novell's customers from suits by Microsoft. Novell themselves would be in violation of the GPL license if they accepted protection directly, but may have passed that liability down to their customers (E6). This is under study.

As SCO Group (formerly Caldera) has found, the Linux and open source communities are quick to defend their interests, particularly against any attack on or infringement of the GPL license. They have proven highly organized and able to field resources that are punishingly effective (E5).

This patent stuff is all a sham in any case. Microsoft will not sue the Linux community or Linux customers over patents. IBM's considers Linux critical and strategic to its server plans all the way from entry level to mainframes. Attacking Linux with patents would be a direct attack on IBM and IBM has more patents than God. They probably have a patent on "Using a Computer to Develop Software" somewhere in their collection. Microsoft is many things but suicidal is not one of them.

There's not a shred of evidence that Linux infringes any Microsoft patented material. What goes into Linux is completely available for inspection and widely and openly discussed so it's unlikely anything in it infringes a valid Microsoft patent and if it did it would be removed immediately. So far SCO Group hasn't been able to find one shred of evidence Linux infringes Unix patents or copyrights and it's a lot closer to Unix than to Windows.

The only thing that might infringe Microsoft intellectual property is Novell's own Mono project which is aimed at compatibility with Microsoft's .Net structure. Microsoft declared years ago, long before Novell acquired the project, that Mono would have to use their intellectual property and they would eventually be enforcing their rights - so perhaps there was a little pressure applied here. Mono has been highly controversial since it was started.

In the main, what this agreement does do is revive and keep in circulation the idea that Microsoft could sue, at some or any time and very well might. In other words, it's a FUD campaign (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt). Novell stepped right into it and it's driven a wedge between the FOSS communities and what was hoped to be a most effective commercial enterprise in the Linux fold. It's a "Win Win" situation with all wins going to Microsoft.

As I've been saying for years, "A Microsoft partner is a victim they haven't gotten around to yet", but if you're already a Microsoft competitor, a partnership agreement is more likely immediately destructive.

- Andrew Grygus

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©Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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