Novell Touts Microsoft–There’s a Shock

Last week, the story was broke that Novell was claiming to be making some money, and the company cited its partnership with Microsoft as a big reason why.

This came out during a conference hosted by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, in which Novell’s Director of Marketing Justin Steinman indicated “The affect on sales year over year, for Novell’s first three quarters of our fiscal year, which ends Oct. 31–our Linux business was up 243 percent year over year.”

Normally, this kind of up-tick in Linux business would be a good thing, but then Justin had to go and sour the milk with this now oft-quoted gem from Novell’s marketing strategy: “Do you want the Linux that works with Windows? Or the one that doesn’t?”

Needless to say, people were seriously honked off. Pamela Jones over at Groklaw launched a scathing critique on the Novell-Microsoft lovefest, which blasted Novell for not getting, after all their big talk, the concept of open source at all.

Actually, with all respect to Ms. Jones, I think Novell does get it–perhaps more than any of us would like to acknowledge.

Open source is, when all is said and done, a means to develop software by sharing code with select groups of people. The more open a license is, the more people get to share the code. Open source is not some sort of over-arching moral standard that dictates business practices. Personally, I wish it were. But it’s not and arguing that a company needs to behave in an “open source” way is not an effective argument.

For instance, while many of us in the community are squeamish about the notion that Microsoft and Novell were producing some sort of mad-scientist marketing synergy to grow some Frankenstein’s monster of a Linux business, there is nothing inherent in open source that says this kind of thing is not allowed. Ask yourself, honestly: do you think Red Hat or Canonical or any other commercial Linux vendor doesn’t use marketing to build themselves up and knock their opponents down? I’ll answer it for you: I know such practices take place. All of the time.

Yes, I will be the first to stand up and say that it’s galling to hear so-called compatibility with Microsoft being used as a marketing ploy. But it was equally galling for me to hear pre-Fedora Red Hat claim to be purely open source when everyone knew they were keeping some secret sauce for certain ISVs–like Oracle–to hook into. And I am sure there are lot of other marketing statements we have heard in the past from other companies that have set our teeth on edge.

Make no mistake: this is no apologia for marketing horse hockey. But the unfortunate truth is that this stuff is present in any for-profit arena, and it has nothing to do with how the product is made. If anything, I think having an open source product makes marketing even more prevalent: if the market has Linux A, Linux B, and Linux C, all based on the same software, how does Linux B distinguish itself? A few gadgets and gizmos, yes; better services, sure; excellent support–the list goes on. But how does Linux B make all that differentiating stuff known to potential customers? Marketing.

Steinman’s remarks gave us all a rare, candid look into the seething underbelly of how business is done in IT, whether it’s an open source company or a proprietary one. It struck a nerve because it was Novell, working with Microsoft. As much as we are loathe to admit it, this partnership may be showing signs of life (unless his remarks were nothing more than marketing smoke as well). There is nothing special about open source development or ideals that can prevent it. Nor the ideals of free software, since the Novell/MS partnership slips right past GPLv2 and (thanks to the grandfather clause) GPLv3.

If something is to be done about Novell and Microsoft’s partnership, then it will have to be something other than holding these companies up to the “ideal” of free and open source. Sadly, as long as they are following the letter of the law, such arguments will fall on deaf ears.

Something else will need to be done.