What Microsoft Fears More than Linux

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

In taekwondo, as in many martial arts, when someone comes at you
with a weapon, you tend to focus on that weapon almost to the
exclusion of all else.

The tough-guy-movie representation of this situation is: “Oh,
you’ve brought me a . How thoughtful.” In reality, the thought line
goes something like: “Oh ! A ! Get it away from me!” Far less brave
sounding, but the end result is hopefully the same, if the proper
technique is applied: a disarmed and (ideally) disabled

This analogy came to mind as I was thinking about the incredible
rise in rhetoric surrounding Microsoft’s patent-infringement
allegations against Linux. As I attended the sessions at the Open
Source Business Conference this week, the rhetoric was very
strong–far stranger than anything leveled at The SCO Group when
they started their happy litigation hunt years ago. By leveling an
allegation on 235 patents that Linux supposedly infringes upon,
Microsoft has apparently engendered a reaction in the free and open
source software communities the likes of which I personally have
never seen.

All through the conference, the level of anger and condemnation
from prominent members of the community conveyed one glaring fact:
whether or not Microsoft wanted a patent war, they sure as hell
have one now.

Today’s statement from the Linux Foundation gives a sharp
glimpse into the very real emotions that have been stirred up by
the patent accusations: “Touch one member of the Linux community,
and you will have to deal with all of us. Microsoft is not the
only–perhaps not even the largest–owner of patents in this area.
Individual members of the Linux ecosystem have significant patent
portfolios. Industry groups, such as the Open Innovation Network
and our own legal programs at the Linux Foundation, aggregate our
membership’s patents into an arsenal with which to deter predatory
patent attacks. With our members’ backing, the Linux Foundation
also has created a legal fund to defend developers and users of
open-source software against malicious attack. We don’t expect to
but, if needed, we will use this fund to defend Linux.”

That was from Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux
Foundation. The language was blunt and to the point: the Linux
world is readying for a state of war. Other statements I heard,
both publicly and privately, at the OSBC confirmed this:
individuals and companies are getting their legal armaments ready
for anything that Microsoft might be willing to try.

But while you might think I was going to use the weapon analogy
from the beginning of this column to represent Linux treating
Microsoft’s attack as they would an armed assailant’s, I want to
step back a minute and flip the analogy around a bit.

First, a little background. You deal with weapons in many ways.
How you treat a gun pointed at you and a knife held towards you
are, by necessity, different. Remember, the overall goal is the
same: get rid of the weapon or render the weapon useless. But even
on an instinctual level, people will try different things to
protect themselves. And, tellingly, you can learn a lot about the
nature of the weapon by the way people react.

So, let’s experiment and try seeing this current standoff from
the point of view of Microsoft. They clearly feel attacked by
Linux, or open source, or free software, or what have you, but we
don’t know exactly why. How they are responding to the threat
against them may give us a clue as to what they feel most

When I look at their recent actions, it seems clear to me that
it’s not Linux they fear the most. If it were Linux, there would be
a lot larger campaign to discredit Linux on a user- and
technical-level. Sure, there are the occasional potshots, but a
real, full-blown campaign that says “MS Product A is better than
Linux”? This hasn’t been, historically, their main line of

I believe their choice of defense gives us the clue: they are
hinting strongly at a possible battle with intellectual property
(IP). They see don’t see Linux as the real threat: they see the
goals and ideals of free and open source software taking hold and
becoming the main threat. Because in Microsoft’s nightmare world
where copyleft and open source becomes the norm, they would begin
to lose their IP and the very thing they think makes them

Their defense is cunning: it’s outrageous and bold, and enough
to quite possibly scare people who aren’t paying attention to leave
Linux for Microsoft, or not leave Microsoft at all. It could, as I
have already theorized, nudge other Linux vendors like Red Hat into
Novell-like partnership arrangements with Microsoft. But these are
short-term effects. I don’t think they are what Microsoft is really
after, long-term.

Instead, I think Microsoft wants nothing less than the full and
total discrediting of free software as a development model. Because
while free software is still alive and viable, Microsoft will
always be threatened. And that’s why they are going the IP route
now. They have to try to kill it, not Linux.

I have no doubt that if Linux were like any other proprietary
operating system, Microsoft could level its massive PR and
marketing machine and utterly destroy Linux. But Linux is not
proprietary. So even if you could make it undesirable to consumers,
it would not matter–because there would always be some other free
version of Linux or its next generation ready to take its place.
Microsoft knows this, which is why it does not spend huge amounts
of effort going after Linux as an operating system. Instead, it
chooses to go after the very environment that lets Linux exist.

Choke off the “oxygen” of free software, and you might eliminate
the threat. Or, specifically in Microsoft’s case, poison the
atmosphere instead. They get the same results.

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Developer Insider for top news, trends, & analysis