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Killing With Kindness

May 30, 2008, 22:30 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I read the Boycott Novell (BN) site fairly regularly, even if I don't always agree with what it has to say.

I consider Roy Schestowitz, one of the site's creators, a good guy and (thus far) we have had a very cordial relationship. But the tone of the BN site is almost always in rant mode, which is not my preferred reading style; and Schestowitz and I have some other core differences too.

Here is where he and I tend to differ in opinion (from my point of view): While I believe the Novell-Microsoft partnership is a source of big trouble, I don't believe that it's the root of all evil.

Novell's intention is not to let Microsoft's patent agreements destroy Linux altogether. Personally, I think it's more likely that Novell will use Microsoft to try their darnedest to trip up Red Hat as much as possible. If they get caught up or even surpass Red Hat, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Novell-Microsoft agreements will begin to slowly lapse. Novell's dealt with this devil before; they know a number for a good exorcist.

There is, of course, the argument that Novell is trying to completely co-opt Linux for themselves, but I think the GPL (in whatever version) effectively ends that line of reasoning.

Clearly Novell is only in this for themselves and the rest of the Linux vendors can go hang, it's not the poisoning of Linux that's the objective for them. Generating business is the goal and using Linux is the way they want to do it.

Generating business is also Microsoft's goal, but their modus operandi is about controlling the marketplace. They have always felt more comfortable when they can dictate as many conditions as possible. Redmond can compete, but they really don't like it. Better to dominate the market early and just sit back and watch the money roll in.

This is why, as I and many others have stated before, open source and Linux just bugs the heck out of Redmond. They cannot control Linux. It can't be bought; it can't be completely wiped out, even with the empty threats of patent infringement. What's a megalomaniacal company to do?

One recent article at BN actually identified what I believe is the most likely plan for Microsoft: "Microsoft is Stealing... Open Source." The article launches into a scathing report on the use of "open source heroes" in a current Microsoft marketing campaign, and points out recent Microsoft participation in the SourceForge awards as a possible source of trouble.

At this point, given my typical moderate stance, you would think I would chide Schestowitz for being too paranoid. In actuality, I think he is focusing on the symptoms of what I believe is happening in the big picture: Microsoft is trying to steal open source and make it an ideal of their own.

Remember, because of its specific licensing, it's very hard to kill Linux. Even an all-out patent war would just slow it down, nothing more. But if Microsoft can make itself synonymous with the very ideal of open source, it could end up marginalizing Linux to the point where it would be come a commercial non-threat.

Let's walk through it. By establishing two Open Source Initiative-approved licenses, Microsoft can legitimately claim to be a producer of open source software. Promoting the Office Open XML format as an ISO standard is another way they are demonstrating openness, as is the Port 25 community. And now, after the technical failures of OOXML, they have even adopted ODF as a format for use in their Office cash cow.

All of this "openness" has two objectives: in the short term, it could convince the European Union regulators to back off their anti-competitive investigations of Microsoft. Long term, if played with enough sincerity, customers might actually believe what I am sure is the coming retcon from Microsoft: that they've always been an open source company at heart--in fact, they are the model for all other open source companies. Nutty? Just you wait.

No matter how the message is delivered--whether you prefer BN, LT, or some other outlet, I believe we can agree that there is strong evidence of a slow collaborative effort from Redmond to co-opt "open source" as a concept. If that can actually be accomplished, one of Linux' biggest advantages could be rendered moot--if not in truth, then at least in marketing. And in business, sometimes marketing is all you need.