On the surface, it may seem that the Microsoft-Novell agreement was a watershed moment for Linux. After all, many businesses do not want to be slapped with lawsuits by using software that may infringe software patents of any kind (whether software patents even deserve to be granted remains a separate issue). The deal could calm the nerves of CIOs who are thinking of deploying Linux.
But if you look under the hood, things are not as altruistic as it seems. There has been a whirlwind of sorts going on in the free and open source community, which continues to be wary of what lies behind the public relations veil, especially those that involve patents.
Both Novell and Microsoft said they are paying each other for "covenants" that one would not assert patent rights against the other.
Yes, Novell has said the money it's paying Microsoft does not imply Linux is infringing Redmond's patent arsenal. But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer clearly thinks otherwise, when he said during a recent conference in Seattle that Linux infringes on Microsoft's intellectual property.
Yesterday, Microsoft released a statement that said: "Microsoft and Novell have agreed to disagree on whether certain open source offerings infringe Microsoft patents and whether certain Microsoft offerings infringe Novell patents. The agreement between our two companies puts in place a workable solution for customers for these issues, without requiring an agreement between our two companies on infringement."
"Both of our companies are fully committed to moving forward with all of the important work under these agreements. The agreements will advance interoperability between Windows and Linux, and put in place a new intellectual property bridge between proprietary and open source software. Customers and participants throughout our industry will clearly benefit from these results."
In other words, you may read it as: Yes, we may be infringing each other's patents, but that's not the point, or isn't important at this stage. We're here to give our customers peace of mind with the agreement.
In the long run, business customers will benefit. But that benefit is also the result of work put in by members of the open source community. The fact that Microsoft's patent pledge only applies to "commercial" developers means many more "non-commercial" developers can't contribute code to commercial projects.
While commercial support has been instrumental to the success of many open source projects, global collaboration is the lifeblood of the open source movement. Breaking the link between the community and commercial world will only kill open source.
There will be a special meeting conducted by Novell on the #openSUSE-project Freenode IRC channel this Thursday at 17:00 GMT, to discuss the Microsoft-Novell deal. I'd certainly be tuning in.