Microsoft and Novell at two: Was the patent pact worth it?

Summary:Two years ago this month, in November 2006, Microsoft inked its controversial cross-licensing pact with Novell. Since the agreement was forged, a lot has happened.

Two years ago this month, in November 2006, Microsoft inked its controversial cross-licensing pact with Novell.

In exchange for Microsoft distributing to its customers certificates for Novell's SuSE Linux, Novell basically conceded that its implementation of Linux violated Microsoft patents and agreed its customers needed patent-enforcement protection. (That's not how Novell or Microsoft likes to portray the arrangement, but that's what it boiled down to, in essence.)

Since the agreement was forged, a lot has happened.

In the first few months after Novell and Microsoft announced their deal, Microsoft convinced a number of smaller Linux players they needed similar "patent protection" coverage. Among those who signed on Microsoft's dotted patent-infringement line: Linspire and Xandros.

Red Hat held firm and wouldn't succumb to CEO Steve Ballmer's infringement sabre-rattling. In March 2007, Yankee Group issued a study noting that Novell's share was growing vis-a-vis Red Hat's, and said Microsoft's certificate distribution was the main reason. And Microsoft and Novell proudly touted customers who they claimed were eager to seek shelter from potential Microsoft patent lawsuits by signing up for SuSE Linux.

In February 2007, Ballmer stated in no uncertain terms that the deal between Microsoft and Novell was proof that open-source vendors need to respect Microsoft's intellectual property. One month later,Microsoft licensing officials made the bold (and as still publicly unsupported) claim that Linux and other free software violated 235 Microsoft patents.

Novell definitely benefited financially from the Microsoft pact. Its deal with Microsoft helped keep Novell in business, some industry watchers went so far as to say. But Novell came to be seen by many open source purists as a sell-out and little more than Microsoft's patsy in Redmond's ongoing Windows vs. Linux and closed-source vs. open-source battles.

In the past year, there have been no new Linux vendors lining up to sign patent-protection deals. Microsoft's open-source backers, led by Sam Ramji & Co., have been endeavoring to undo some of the damage Ballmer's anti-open-source rhetoric has done since Novell and Microsoft signed their agreement.

How would you rate the two-year old Microsoft-Novell deal, at this point? A positive for customers, but a negative for Novell? A win for all parties (Microsoft, customers and Novell)? A wash?

Update: Microsoft issued a press release on November 18 to commemorate the Novell-Microsoft anniversary.  Microsoft is citing interoperability advances (that I've always thought would have been possible without the pact) and new customers as proof that the relationship has been a resounding success. From the release:

"In the second year of their business collaboration agreement, Microsoft and Novell have added more than 200 new joint customers, including Alticor Inc., BP Oil International Ltd. and China Mobile Ltd., which are receiving certificates from Microsoft for three-year priority support subscriptions for Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. When the five-year agreement was signed in November 2006, Microsoft purchased certificates to sell to customers, which then redeemed those certificates with Novell for a subscription to SUSE Enterprise. In the first two years of the agreement, Novell has invoiced more than 70 percent of the original certificate purchase."

Topics: Linux, Microsoft, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

About

Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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