From Microsoft to Opensoft? Novell just another hole in the garden wall

Summary:There's a bit of irony in the fact that Novell is the company that Microsoft made its legal pact with yesterday. Novell as a company is a shell of its former self.

There's a bit of irony in the fact that Novell is the company that Microsoft made its legal pact with yesterday. Novell as a company is a shell of its former self. But there's a bit of Novell history that might make sense for Microsoft to take note of. Back in the mid-90's the company was cut in two by a bitter dividing line. On one side was a purist and the father of Novell's Netware Drew Major. Major wanted to keep the company going in one direction and had a loyal following at the company's sprawling Provo, Utah campus that was willing to follow him where ever he went. Over on the Orem campus (where its latest acquistion Wordperfect was based), existed other factions including one led by Jeff Merkey who saw the world differently. The company was tearing itself in two (or maybe three or four) and none of the post-Ray Noorda CEOs were able to reign in the distraction while it's biggest threat -- Microsoft -- was finally getting its act together with Windows NT Server. Overall, it wasn't good timing.

Today, while "bitter division" is probably not the way I think anybody would characterize what's going on going on at Microsoft, it's clear from what I'm hearing that there are some at the company that are more forward thinking about open standards and open source (and that are trying to nudge the company more in those directions) while others aren't quite so convinced.

The real question, if you ask me, is whether or not the company has much choice. That's not just because its getting pressure from open source competitors. It's also because the viable alternatives in terms of growing its business (and growth is what any business needs) are increasingly already in one or both of the aforementioned open worlds (source, standards... note they're not the same thing).  

While it's just my opinion, my take on the Microsoft-Novell intellectual property deal is that Redmond would like to see some better growth for Microsoft's flagship .Net and the ecosystem around it. If customers want the benefits of .Net on Linux (which is essentially the unique selling proposition of Novell's Mono), then Microsoft is actually better off letting those customers have it than not. If for example, any of Microsoft's intellectual property presented a barrier to adoption of Novell's Mono, that's not good for Microsoft. If those customers prefer to build their infrastructures on Linux, any IP-barriers will just push them to something else like Rails, PHP, or Java. If Microsoft wants any hope of intercepting that platform demand, it has to allow the .Net ecosystem grow more naturally, even if it's not on Windows. And then, maybe later, it might be able to capitalize on Mono's adoption by getting some people to switch or, by offering .Net-related products and services for which no Linux alternative exists.

In the bigger picture, the fact is that Microsoft made a pact with an open source company and it's a decision that may ultimately prove to be better for Microsoft's business overall. The same thing is true of the company's deal with Socialtext. Wikis, which are what SocialText does, are highly disruptive to other attempts at collaborative infrastructure like Microsoft's Sharepoint. Small companies like Socialtext are good a disrupting the status quo. Big companies like Microsoft may look for disruption opportunities, but ultimately, are almost always responding to disruption.

Either way, whether the company wants to do the disrupting or respond to it, agility is important and invariably means doing deals or acquisitions. Google could have responded to the disruption that wiki hoster Jotspot (a Socialtext competitor) was causing. But it made way more sense (for agility's sake) just to acquire it. One problem for a primarily closed company like Microsoft is that the number of closed-source disruptors to acquire is shrinking. The same goes for Google. Jotspot was a good one to sweep up. But the rest of the viable options (including Socialtext) are either built on open source or are open source.  Looking around at the many startups that springing up all over the world, that trend to either build-on or be an open source company isn't slowing down. It's speeding up which means that, going forward, the only choice for closed-sourced companies to respond to disruption (or create it) may be to acquire open source companies.

Open source can be "taken" closed. It's a bit of an intellectual property trick for the lawyers and requires kid gloves with whatever community of developers is affected, but at the end of the day, is probably not worth it. Should Microsoft or any other traditionally closed-source company find itself acquiring open source companies just to keep up with disruption, the resulting company will at some point be more open source than not.  Maybe not tomorrow, next week or next year. But, depending on how much influence the open thinkers in Microsoft have over the companies direction, eventually.

Somewhere in the future, we'll look back on loosely coupled deals like these and realize that Microsoft should have acquired Novell instead. Just the same way it should be putting Web-based office applications on the Web now, instead of later. The debate is over. There's money to be made in open source and Linux. Sooner or later, Microsoft will have to make some of it. 

Topics: Open Source

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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