Microsoft's Linux IP Moves: What Does It All Mean?

If you've been following the tech news lately, you might be aware of an interesting development in the virtual cold war that's existed between Microsoft and the open-source movement since, well, the inception of the open-source movement. Microsoft's reaction to those who make "free" software has evolved over the years, and oddly enough, it seems to have followed the cycle of the K├╝bler-Ross "5 stages of grief":

Denial. Open source? Never heard of it. Why don't you come back when you folks are actually making some money?

Anger. What do you mean Linux and Apache are stealing market share from the low end of the server market? That's our business!

Bargaining. OK, here's a thought: Maybe Linux and Apache are taking share on the low-end. But as long as Windows Server and Microsoft IIS continue to dominate the Fortune 500, we won't have any problems.

Depression. What? They're in the data center now? But...we offer so much more functionality than the open-source solutions! Can't people see that?

Acceptance. Microsoft has announced a series of deals, with open-source companies such as Novell, Xandros, Boss, XenSource, Samsung, Zend, and others, to collaborate on solutions that will make open source-solutions and Microsoft products and services work better together. The key to this, of course, is intellectual property cross-licensing, which typically involves patent convents by which Microsoft promises not to legally pursue customers of its partners.

To the typical Microsoft customers, these deals might seem pragmatic: After all, Microsoft has finally woken up to the fact that most of its business customers operate heterogeneous environments, either because of corporate mergers and purchases, or for valid technical reasons. And while Microsoft's reaction to this reality has been amusing, to say the least, the company has certainly made a number of efforts to ensure that its products can interoperate more easily with open-source solutions.

The company's recent noise about IP and patents, however, is troubling: Recently, Microsoft executives vaguely revealed that Linux and other open-source solutions were violating 235 Microsoft patents without actually identifying what any of those patents were for. The reaction from the open-source community was swift and predictable: Microsoft, they said, was engaging in a campaign of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, or FUD, and the company should simply put up or shut up. If Linux, in particular, is really infringing on Microsoft patents, Linux inventor Linus Torvalds said, tell us how and where it is doing so, and we'll fix it. That is a common-sense response, but it's been met with silence from Microsoft.

Here's why. Microsoft, too, is no doubt violating hundreds of software patents, and the open-source community is stockpiling its own portfolio of tech patents so that it can use them as a counterattack in the event of a Microsoft lawsuit. Microsoft, knowing this, doesn't really want to take any open-source companies--or their customers, who, not coincidentally, are often Microsoft customers as well--to court. It turns out that Microsoft's revelation about the 235 patents wasn't about lawsuits at all. No, what it wants is for more open-source companies to enter in to the type of lucrative collaborative agreements to which Novell and Xandros have agreed.

So like the United States and Russia at the apex of the real cold war, Microsoft and the open-source community are, in fact, poised with fingers on the proverbial button, waiting for the other to blink. It's a silly state of affairs and one for which Microsoft shoulders much of the blame. True interoperability between competing platforms requires trust. And trust requires honesty and transparency. Come on, Microsoft. Show us those patents.

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