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What Microsoft Fears More than Linux

May 25, 2007, 22:30 (37 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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 opponent.

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 threatened.

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 defense.

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 Microsoft.

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.