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Another Brick in the Wall?

Jul 06, 2007, 22:30 (23 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

It seems, for now, that the plan to negate the threat of Microsoft's patent protection plan with certain Linux partners has succeeded. The statements made by Microsoft disavowing any notion that they will fall under the new version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3) seems to confirm that.

Essentially, Microsoft is saying that it will not distribute or support any code that's under the GPLv3 license, even as it continues its partnerships with Novell, Linspire, and Xandros. That, I think, will be neat trick, given that the next time any of these Linux distributors puts out another formal release, there's bound to be some GPLv3 code in that release somewhere. In other words, Microsoft's support could be full of holes. No one is exactly sure how this will play out, since this is uncovered ground.

I still find it hard to believe that Microsoft thought this could go another way, and they weren't expecting this. Perhaps, as I opined last week, their goal is to try to challenge the legal validity of the GPL itself. Or perhaps they were just dumb enough, as my colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols theorizes, to get caught on the hook.

Whatever the reasoning for entering such agreements, it seems that the issue of patent protection is either completely out of the picture or heavily damaged. And I must admit that gives me a certain sense of relief, given that I was not looking forward to a knock-down drag-out fight that would waste valuable resources and time for open source developers.

But in all fairness, I have to also admit that part of me is a bit concerned that we have lost a genuine opportunity to actually get some interoperability between Linux and Windows going. Let me be clear: the patent protection racket solicited by Microsoft was wrong, is wrong, and forever more shall be wrong. It would have been better if Microsoft had reached out to the Linux community without making that IP protection clause a part of all of its deals. As comments from Red Hat's executive staff suggest, any genuine effort for interoperability--without patent claims, statements, or whatever--have been consistently rejected by Redmond.

I don't entirely blame Microsoft for this division. I have seen members of the free software and open source community reject any notion of interoperability with Microsoft, citing past misdeeds by that company as reason enough not to trust Redmond.

I am not saying that this mistrust is unwarranted. What concerns me is this: a technology wall between free and proprietary software is slowly being reinforced by the recent deeds on both sides. This is not, mind you, the ideological wall that already existed between the two camps--that wall is still very high. But the technology wall, which lies on the path of interoperability between the technologies, wasn't very high and there were signs that it was coming down (I note the recent efforts of the Samba Project and the Open Source lab at Microsoft as an example).

Now, to protect itself, Microsoft may be less willing to share and actually work towards interoperability. Maybe they never intended to, but it seems clear to me that such efforts are surely going to fall by the wayside.

This will pose some challenges for the open source world, both legal and technical, because like it our not, this is still an IT world dominated by proprietary software companies. As the GPLv3 rightly shows us (and them), we don't have to play by their rules. But is there ever going to be a chance for compromise on any level?