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Catching Up

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There is always a feeling of disconnection when you come back from vacation, stemming from the fact that yes, indeed, the world did move on without you.

But when I got back from visiting glorious (if slightly wet) Italy last week, the disorienting feeling was just a little bit sharper when I noted that yet another Linux distributor has made a covenant deal with Microsoft.

Say thanks to Xandros, everybody, for validating Microsoft's plan to kill Linux.

As I'm sure you have all heard, Xandros and Microsoft has entered into a patent covenant agreement very similar to the one Redmond struck with Novell late last year. The only difference being that in this deal, Microsoft won't be selling/distributing Xandros coupons like they do for Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

The terms of the deal seem simple enough: Microsoft gets access to some of Xandro's interoperability tools (and vice versa), and Microsoft pledges not to sue any of Xandros' customers for any supposed intellectual property infringements that Linux has on Microsoft's patented works.

Naturally, many in the open source community called Xandros out on this, ranking the company right up there with Novell in terms of bone-headed maneuvers. I strongly disagree. I would argue that this move is nowhere near as dumb as the MS-Novell deal.

I would stipulate that it's about ten times more idiotic.

Let's review: Xandros gets nothing out of this deal but some licensed interoperability tools that it apparently couldn't afford to just license outright. So, it had to make a trade with some of their own interoperability technology. And to get their new line of Linux-infringes-Microsoft's-IP FUD even further into the public mindset, Microsoft seems to have apparently thrown their patent pledge into the deal as well.

How thoughtful.

So here, then is the difference that makes the MS-Xandros deal potentially more lethal to Xandros: if it were to come to a patent war, there may be nothing in the deal that says Microsoft won't sue Xandros. Because, if you'll recall, Novell has already stated publicly that they are not protected from a Microsoft lawsuit--only Novell's customers are. Assuming that the same deal applies to Xandros, let me just ask one question: with what, prey tell, will Xandros defend itself with?

You can be mad as heck about Novell, but you have to admit, if it comes to a patent war, they have a pretty darn good patent portfolio of their own to slap Microsoft with. I highly doubt that Xandros has a similar arsenal.

I don't know who asked for the pledge first, but ultimately it was up to Xandros to refuse that part of the deal, so they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for this snafu. Xandros CEO Andreas Typaldos has defended the deal, stating in an interview with InformationWeek, that "What's good for adoption rates is good for Linux."

If you want to play just by the numbers, that might fly. Might. But this is not about just numbers, it's about perception. Customers of Linux are never going to be in any danger of being directly sued by Microsoft, because the backlash would be too great, even for Redmond to handle. This is all just smoke and mirrors to make Microsoft look magnanimous, while at the same time getting more Linux distributors to play the game by Microsoft's rules.

The real danger lies in wait for the distributors, who are in no way protected from Microsoft launching IP actions, should they decide to launch the first strike.

Xandros knows that, and they cynically don't care. Having not been a success with their products in the face of competition from Ubuntu and Linspire, they are trying yet another business strategy to try to get ahead. Don't think they will shed a tear if they manage to do so at the legal expanse of other distros. What's good for adoption rates is good for Xandros. Period.

But let's play it strictly by the numbers for a minute. Will more Xandros adoptions help Linux overall? For that, I keep coming back to the axiom that I tell my daughters over and over: "too much of a good thing is probably not."

Getting more Linux to customers in this manner will look good on paper, but it will increasingly enforce the notion that only distributions working directly with Microsoft aren't some sort of IP criminal. In time, Linux will be perceived as a renegade and lawbreaking operating system.

Never mind that this perception isn't true--it won't matter. All those government adoptions of Linux will dry up, because no politician will want to have their name associated with this IP-stained OS. Private adoptions will plummet as well. To get their sales back, Linux distributors may have to either get on board with Microsoft to "protect" customers or hope that the alleged IP infringements see the light of day so the truth will out.

But that won't happen. Microsoft won't sue. With Xandros now under their patent umbrella, they have just seen that all they have to do is keep waiting, throwing out little vague hints.

It's just a matter of time.


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