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Rolling the Cheese
On the Internet, they say, no one knows you're a dog. After the start of this week, I can safely add, no one knows you are sick as a dog, either.
Such was the fun going on in the global headquarters of Linux Today for the first half of this week, as your editor fought off a case of the flu to keep LT up and running... and nothing more. Being sick is never fun, but it was especially frustrating this week, because Microsoft opened its corporate big mouth again and I had some things to say in response.
Since I am feeling much better now, I'm going to take a stab at why Microsoft is trying such a strange tactic.
I am a big believer in cause and effect (or effect and cause, for you quantum physicists out there). When people do something, they are often responding to something else, some other stimulus. We take out the trash because we don't want our house to stink. We build a new application because we have a solution to a certain problem. And so on. Certainly not all of our actions are a direct result of stimuli, but I think it can safely be said that most of them are.
So when I read about Microsoft's General Counsel Brad Smith telling Fortune magazine about the 235 Microsoft patents upon which Linux is supposedly infringing, my first question was why? My next question was, why now?
The timing of this bit of FUD has me very curious. As in comedy, timing can be very important in business. So why is it that, after trying this exact same line of FUD in 2004, Microsoft is trying again?
I am not exaggerating, by the way. Steve Ballmer made nearly the same exact comments to attendees of Microsoft's Government Leaders Conference in Singapore in November 2004. One key difference: Ballmer cited 228 patents then. Apparently in the 30 months since that 2004 allegation, Linux and open source software has "picked up" seven more infringements. Oh, those naughty, naughty open source coders.
So here we are, in the year 2007, enduring the same allegations. What has changed since then? Certainly the biggest legal change has been that SCO has essentially lost its legal battles with IBM, Red Hat, and Novell. I hate to short-circuit jurisprudence, but after years and years of no proof and silly legal measures, the end results seem obvious.
What else has happened recently? If I were a pie-in-the-sky-cheerleader type, I could point out the big news about Linux and Dell. And while I disagree with the whole "it's for enthusiasts only" line of reasoning, even if I conceded that point, it still means that for the first time in a long time, Microsoft is not getting 100% OEM from an major Intel-based vendor.
In pool, specifically Nine Ball, there is a phrase known as "rolling the cheese," where you hit one ball into the nine ball and hope that the nine ball actually ends up in a pocket. Microsoft is rolling the cheese by threatening customers and developers alike with these allegations, but that is not their real goal. Their nine ball is Red Hat.
I believe the big reason why Redmond is trying this stale tactic again is to get one specific thing: a cross-licensing or covenant agreement with Red Hat, similar to the one they have with Novell. That is the real goal here--anything else, like customers fleeing Linux for Microsoft, would simply be a bonus.
Microsoft has not made it a secret that they would welcome other open source companies to join them in such a covenant, and indeed in this most recent round of hot air, they have reiterated that litigation is not their desire, but instead they want to work with open source "infringers" to set up cross-licensing arrangements.
It's the "why now" question that leads me to the "Red Hat" answer. I don't know when Smith was interviewed, but you can be darn sure Microsoft's PR firm Waggoner Edstrom knew approximately when the article would come out: at or around the time of the Red Hat Summit and the Open Source Business Conference. What better way to deflect the momentum from these two events than casting a cloud of FUD?
More specifically, Red Hat is set to make some major moves in the next couple of years, if they stick to their announced plans. Red Hat Exchange offers a fast way for businesses to try out full application stacks (OS and all), and the online desktop model promoted at this year's Summit would beat the snot out of Microsoft's release-whenever-we-feel-like-it development cycle. If Red Hat's plans come to fruition, Microsoft could find itself in a world of hurt in the enterprise.
The timing of this déjà FUD also works out because of another ball Microsoft has already sunk into the pocket: Novell. Somehow, nobody quite knows for sure how, Redmond was able to convince the owners of SUSE Linux that a patent/technology covenant was just the thing Novell's customers need to be safe from the patent bogeyman.
With this in mind, Microsoft must certainly be trying to get Red Hat in the same pocket with this FUD, caroming the patent ball off the Red Hat ball to try to indirectly place Red Hat in a position what signing a similar agreement looks better than litigation or losing customers.
The good news is, while the pool analogy works to a certain extent, Red Hat, Linux, and Linux customers are not inanimate objects without decision-making capabilities.
Red Hat has seen what is happening to Novell (which must be frustrated beyond belief about what its partner is saying) and wants no part of it. I spoke to several people from Red Hat last week, and the general consensus was that Novell has basically made a deal with the devil and Red Hat has no intention of going down that same path.
Microsoft knows this, because I am certain they had preliminary discussions with Red Hat about this topic, and it seems Red Hat is telling them privately what Red Hat is telling them publicly: hit the road.
Faced with an ever-stronger competitor, Microsoft has revived the patent argument once again, hoping to maneuver Red Hat into a partnership agreement. I believe this is the answer to "why," because it's not the customers Microsoft is trying to sink.
It's Red Hat, corner pocket.