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Where the Heck is Canossa?

Jan 18, 2008, 23:30 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Somewhere, lost in all the big news about Sun buying MySQL, Oracle buying BEA, and various and sundries, there was the news that Mandriva and Turbolinux were going into business together. Well, sort of.

In actuality, what the two companies are doing are setting up a joint development lab, cleverly called Manbo, to work on some code together. In the olden times, before the harsh dragon of Microsoft's patented patent agreement with Linux distributors reared its ugly head, such a joint venture would be regarded as cool. Another sign that "coopetition" was alive and well in the open source arena.

In this arrangement, however, that notion has been spoiled somewhat by the fact that in 2007, Turbolinux signed one of those interoperability agreements with Microsoft, which included the infamous "we won't your customers if your stuff infringes on our patents" clause. If you'll recall, Turbolinux was the most recent Linux company to do this, following Novell, Linspire, and Xandros.

During the Age of Capitulation, as I have named it, one company actually took a proactive stance and said "Nuh uh. Not us. No way, José." Except they were more eloquent about it, with cool literary/historical references that I had to Google for, because it was Mandriva and I'm pretty sure the words "No way José" have ever been uttered by CEO François Banchilon.

What Banchilon did say at the time was better:

"We also believe what we see, and up to now, there has been absolutely no hard evidence from any of the FUD propagators that Linux and open source applications are in breach of any patents. So we think that, as in any democracy, people are innocent unless proven guilty and we can continue working in good faith.

"So we don't believe it is necessary for us to get protection from Microsoft to do our job or to pay protection money to anyone..."

And the crowd went wild. Including, I must admit, myself. Because as I noted in June, after facing a lot of financial trouble and being on the fiscal ropes, Mandriva turned any chance of making such a deal down:

"With the exception of the bankruptcy proceedings, that's very similar to situations faced by Xandros and Linspire. In fact, one could argue that the whole bankruptcy situation made the situation worse for Mandriva.

"But given this hardship, did Mandriva fold?

"No, they did not. They stood up for what was right. They stood up for what was true. It may not have been the easy thing to do, but they did it anyway."

So when the joint lab with Turbolinux was announced on Wednesday, I have to admit the first thought that went through my head was "uh oh."

Had the harsh realties of the market finally gotten Mandriva to cave? Had they skirted the limelight to indirectly enter into a patent agreement with Microsoft? Quite a few people seemed to think so, and it worried me for a bit. Until I did that reporter thing and just e-mailed Banchilon to find out what was going on.

I asked Banchilon if, given his company's prior stance on Microsoft's patent agreements, if it was at all at odds with this new Manbo arrangement.

We discussed the issue with Turbo before making the agreement. They understand our position, and we accept theirs. We made it clear that whatever we develop jointly is clearly outside of the scope of their agreement with Microsoft. So the Turbolinux-Microsoft agreement has no impact on anything Mandriva does and our policy concerning Microsoft has not changed," he replied.

At this point, I'm thinking that this all sounds well and good, but how will this actually work? I kept envisioning some Mandriva developer accidently seeing some Turbolinux code that had some Microsoft functionality incorporated into it, and then being (litigiously) forever scarred. Cross-contamination would ensue, and months later, there would be a cold rasping knock on Mandriva's door in the middle of the night. The knock of lawyers from Redmond.

I wrote back: "I'm trying to understand how logistically this will work. Is there some sort of 'clean room' in place to keep Mandriva developers from seeing any Turbolinux code that might fall under the alleged Microsoft patents or any code that Microsoft may have directly contributed to Turbolinux?"

"The 10 or so engineers working in Manbo Labs have no access to any of the Turbo technology that is not is the lab scope. And everything in that scope is GPL," Banchilon replied.

Not content with explaining it just to me, Banchilon reiterated these technical aspects, with more detail, on the Mandriva blog today. Specifically, he indicated what the scope of Manbo Labs would be:

  • The scope of work is about 100 low-level RPMs, all in GPL
  • Product will be available for public release under GPL
  • Development is public, made on our Cooker environment and associates the community

Is that enough to assuage the fears of the community? Hopefully so. I think the two companies need to help each other technically and it sounds as if Mandriva is taking care not to get involved in Microsoft's shenanigans.

It's a matter to trust. Mandriva has not compromised their values before, and I think that's earned them the benefit of the doubt.