The good cop-bad cop dance continues at Microsoft, with bad cop CEO Steve Ballmer again threatening Linux with litigation while good cop Bill Hilf is made master of all Windows Server marketing. (The image is still the logo of this fine Boston music publisher.)
Ballmer's latest tirade was aimed specifically at Red Hat, which is the leader in enterprise Linux and just reported another strong result. If you can stand some registration headaches, a video of his talk is here.
This does not mean Microsoft is about to call in the lawyers. The relevant quote is "People who use Red Hat, at least with respect to our intellectual property, in a sense have an obligation to compensate us." (The italics are mine.) As in, it would be nice if they did.
There are a few ways this could go. Microsoft could send letters to Red Hat Enterprise Linux customers asking that they pay it not to sue. Or it could simply wait for another patent holder, say Eolas, to file the suit. After all, Eolas beat Microsoft out of $521 million in August.
There are problems with either approach. Any shakedown would go to court, because it's a guarantee not all Red Hat customers will go along. And the Eolas patent covers embed technology used on Web pages, which is not part of the Linux operating system. (Besides, the U.S. Patent Office is considering invalidating it based on prior art.)
Meanwhile good cop Hilf is reportedly expanding his role, moving from an engineering position where he interacted with the open source community into an outright marketing job involving Windows Server. This could mean he's going to sing the interoperability song to enterprise customers.
Combine this with Microsoft's ongoing efforts in hospital computing and it seems to me the company is continuing its move "up the stack" into the area once called mainframe computing, where it faces a head-on collision with IBM.
FUD about patent claims means little to the mass market, because patent holders rarely go after customers, but it might mean something in the enterprise space. It might cause enough hesitation that large companies will listen to a Microsoft "blended operating systems" pitch aimed at pushing IBM aside.