Portals: Can Microsoft shelling out for Linux be good?

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It should have been one of the biggest days ever for the Linux software movement: One of America's best-known technology companies makes a $250 million Linux purchase, perhaps the largest Linux deal by anyone, anywhere. But because the company shelling out the money was Microsoft, the Linux camp was reaching for aspirin instead of champagne.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced a deal with Novell, one of several outfits that makes a business selling support for Linux. In the corporate world, Windows versus Linux has the same central role that Windows versus Mac does for consumers. So, the Microsoft-Novell deal was big news. Microsoft described it as a good-faith effort to accommodate its many business customers who want to run both Windows and Linux in-house.

However, had Microsoft really wanted to shower love on Linux it would have gone to the altar with Red Hat, by far the biggest Linux vendor. Instead, Microsoft picked one of the weakest, Novell. While Microsoft says it is open to working with Red Hat, too, some suspect that Microsoft's move wasn't so much supporting Linux as it was fracturing that world by using its mountain of cash to prop up the weakest player.

But all that is normal business hardball. Oracle, for its own strategic reasons, did much the same thing when it recently announced that it would provide support for Linux at half the price provided by Red Hat. By the way, one consequence of these efforts by Microsoft and Oracle is that Linux users are seeing the sort of competition that many business users of Windows would kill for. (Assuming Red Hat doesn't first go out of business, a la Netscape.)

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that a cornerstone of the deal was a guarantee that users of Novell's version of Linux wouldn't be sued by Microsoft. But what about, say, Red Hat customers? There could be, he said, no such guarantees for them.

Mr. Ballmer once called Linux a form of intellectual-property cancer. While he has since dialed back the rhetoric, the subtext remains in nearly all Microsoft discussions of Linux: Use it, and you run the risk that Microsoft will sue you. Why else say you won't sue some customers if you don't want people to think you might sue others? The tech world refers to this kind of talk as the strategy of FUD, or Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. During the Novell news conference, you couldn't miss the insinuation; nearly every article about the pact mentioned it.

The whisper campaign started some time ago: that open-source programmers are, at best, sloppy coders who can't be bothered to keep track of where their programs come from, or at worst, are property-is-theft socialists who see nothing wrong with calling other people's work their own.

I've talked to lots of open-source programmers over the years, and can say confidently that they would never appropriate Microsoft code, at least not knowingly. First, because they don't believe in stealing; second, because they usually think Microsoft code isn't worth taking to begin with. In fact, one often hears the opposite from the Linux camp: Microsoft programmers, under pressure to ship product, have taken battle-hardened Linux code and quietly slipped it into Windows, to be forever shielded by Microsoft's proprietary cloak of invisibility. This also is a tall tale, as self-serving as the one Microsoft implies.

You don't need to take my word for any of this. Unlike with Windows, everything about Linux, including its blueprints, which techies call source code, is open for inspection. All discussions about whether a particular batch of code should or shouldn't get added into Linux are carried out in public, on Linux mailing lists and other forums, in soporific detail. Sneaking stolen code into Linux without anyone noticing would be as easy as driving the space shuttle down Fifth Avenue at noon without turning heads.

It's worth remembering that there is a court case about these very issues, involving a set of anti-Linux lawsuits brought by SCO Corp. That's the software maker that made headlines in 2003 by charging that Linux was engorged with examples too numerous to count of outright intellectual-property theft.

Three years and endless depositions later, there still isn't a single credible example of an IP problem with Linux.

I spent some time sparring over these issues with David Kaefer, one of Microsoft's top patent attorneys and a lead negotiator on the Novell deal. Asked if Microsoft planned to sue non-Novell Linux uses, he said only that Microsoft prefers "to license technology, not to litigate." Asked point blank if he thought Linux was using Microsoft code, he responded: "We don't believe it's constructive to identify specific products and start labeling them as infringing when responsible companies show an ability to manage patent issues privately."

Those answers leave just enough uncertainty to worry some. I did get a straight-up answer when I asked, "Do you have any reason to think that the open-source community has any less respect for intellectual-property issues than does Microsoft?"

"No," said Mr. Kaefer.

For me, I hope that's the last word on the subject. Microsoft does everyone a favor when it competes with Linux on performance, and nothing else.


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