One thing is for sure, neither of these vendors is going to be duped by the other. Whether they will admit it to each other of not, each knows this alliance is based upon their own self-interest. If the customer benefits as well, then so be it.
Lest anyone forget, Novell began its run by riding on Microsoft's coattails in 1981 when they decided to support IBM's newly released PC-DOS instead of CP/M for their Network Operating System, later to become known as NetWare. The introduction of Windows NT Server in 1993 marked the beginning of the long slow decline of NetWare dominance in the space. It didn't really matter though. Novell's acquisition of AT&T UNIX Systems Labs in mid-1993 assured Novell a future as a major player in the operating systems space.
It's Novell's ownership of the UNIX System V Release 4 (SVR4) code-base (and it's Novell-branded successor, UnixWare) that makes this story especially interesting. Today, there is only one vendor with undisputed (and unlimited) rights to the UNIX SVR4 code-base -- Sun Microsystems, its co-developer (with AT&T). In short, Sun is free to do as it wishes with its SVR4-derived code-base and no one can challenge their right to do so.
SCO also claims ownership to SVR4 (and UnixWare), which they believe they acquired from Novell in 1995. Novell's counterclaim is that they granted marketing rights for the code-base and the right to modify and market Novell's UnixWare. The water is muddied by the fact that while it still owned UnixWare and the SVR4 code-base, Novell transferred authority over the UNIX Standard (but not the SVR4 code-base) to the Open Group.
Things got interesting in January 2004 when Novell acquired SuSE Linux. Assuming that Novell's claims to the UNIX SVR4 and UnixWare code-bases are upheld in court, Novell will be in the unique position of of owning outright both the SUSE code-base and the SVR4 and UnixWare code-bases. This would make Novell all but litigation-proof regarding any blending of UNIX code and Linux code (provided that in doing so, Novell does not violate the GPL protecting the Linux code-base.)
Shortly after Microsoft purchased its own perpetual UNIX license from SCO, it settled a number of lawsuits and then entered into a partnership with its former adversary, Sun Microsystems. But it didn't stop there. In the months since, Microsoft has settled a string of lawsuits with Novell and a new partnership has emerged!
The rumor circulating this summer, that Vista Ultimate would support virtualization and would run Linux binaries, should have been a hint.
Will this partnership mature? Who knows? After all, the partnership between Sun and Microsoft seems to have fallen flat. But what does this mean to the end user? Probably not very much.
SLED aficionados will continue to praise Novell while espousing the virtues of free Linux -- pretending all the while that Novell is not just as anxious to turn a profit on enterprise versions of their Linux products as Microsoft is to push its Windows wares.
Others in the Linux camp will criticize Novell as a 'turncoat' to the Linux movement -- never mind that everyone pushing their own Linux distribution is desperately trying to make money off of the open source software movement.
What is the upside of this partnership for the enterprise then? Well, the potential upside can be summed up in one word. Interoperability.
Could this alliance result in the interoperability that we have all sought for years? Maybe, but I'm not holding my breath.
Will Microsoft really open up its patents to third-party developers? They've said they will, but I suspect that will last only as long as it suits their needs.
Will this partnership benefit Novell? Yes, if it pans out. That said, if Novell loses its suit with SCO (which seems unlikely), or if SCO is acquired by a Novell competitor (a distinct possibility), the landscape could change dramatically, virtually overnight.
If Novell wins the suit (or acquires SCO), and if the respective partnerships between Microsoft, Novell, and Sun Microsystems survive, they could prove to be a powerful force against their two largest competitors -- RedHat and the grandaddy of them all, IBM.
(In truth, I am surprised IBM hasn't already acquired SCO, just to head off this possible outcome. IBM cannot afford to be at the mercy of Novell to monitor its AIX license compliance in addition to its SUSE Linux licenses.)
IT certainly makes strange bedfellows.