The fair-weather "friends of Linux"

Summary:Ever since Microsoft entered into their agreement with Novell, everyone has been speculating that Microsoft will sue RedHat. My question is ... Why would they bother?

I just finished reading John Carroll's article Why Microsoft won’t assault Linux and while I agree with his conclusion, I don't agree with his reasoning.  John opens up suggesting that a "full legal assault" on Linux would be self-defeating.  I don't think so but I do think that filing suit against RedHat would be an unnecessary waste of Microsoft's time and money. 

I would like to dispense with his first point: Patents cut both ways.  While this is certainly true, John assumes that there are powerful "friends of Linux" who would counter-sue Microsoft in a heartbeat if Microsoft were to use it's patents against RedHat and he reminds us that: Nobody has more patents than IBM.  Does John think IBM would sue Microsoft to save Linux?  I don't think so...

This argument assumes that IBM cares whether Linux lives or dies.  Why would IBM care?  IBM sells Linux because a significant number of it's customers insist on buying Linux.  If IBMs customers were to suddenly decide that investing in Linux were too much of a risk, IBM would happily sell them AIX instead (running on proprietary hardware, no less). 

The other major patent holders, Hewlett-Packard & Sun Microsystems, also have substantial UNIX assets which they would prefer to sell instead of Linux.  In short, all the major players sell Linux to their customers because their customers insist upon it.  Not because they are "friends of Linux". 

John's second point is that Microsoft would suffer long-lasting ill will.  Well this is also true but let's face it, no one in the Linux camp has many positive things to say about Microsoft anyway. 

John's third and final point, regulatory oversight, is the most compelling.  But I don't see this as an intellectual property issue.  In other words, his point is correct but not necessarily his argument. 

Microsoft has been declared a monopoly in both the U.S.A. and in the E.U.  They have been found guilty of numerous anti-competitive practices and they find themselves under immense scrutiny for that reason.  Still, despite regulatory efforts, Microsoft continues to dominate the desktop space for a variety of reasons -- not the least of which is that neither Apple nor any of the other top-tier vendors in that space care to compete for commodity dollars.   

Since porting to Intel, Macintosh fans are quick to point at that a similarly-equipped Dell is no less expensive than a Macintosh.  If Apple chose to, they could configure an entry-level Macintosh at Dell price-points.  Since Apple makes their margins on hardware though, selling commodity desktops is not in their best interest. 

Similarly, Sun has sold an Intel port of Solaris, its UNIX offering, for years and even briefly marketed a Linux-based Java Desktop System.  Today, Sun even gives away Solaris 10 for Intel but the consumer cannot buy it preloaded on competitively priced Intel hardware.  Like Apple, Sun is in the hardware business -- and also the services business -- and it's not in their interest to compete in the commodity desktop space either.  It's no different with IBM and HP -- though HP is in a position to market pre-loaded Linux on it's Intel workstation line, if it so chose.

On the Linux side, there are LOTS of choices.  And all will run on a wide variety of Intel hardware, available at commodity prices.  So why aren't there more Linux desktops out there?  Because none of the top-tier hardware vendors offer a workstation to the consumer with Linux pre-loaded.  There are a small handful of hardware vendors offering Linspire pre-loaded but these vendors are pretty much unheard of. 

Geeks like us have lots of desktop choices:  We could chose Windows, Macintosh, Solaris 10, even UnixWare from (ugh) SCO.  Or we can choose any number of Linux distributions, from RHEL to SLED, from Ubuntu to Slackware, to Linspire or anything in between, and put it on any Intel hardware we wish.  But what about the consumer -- who knows little, if anything, about operating systems and who wants his OS preloaded and wants his hardware from a company he's heard of? 

Windows or Macintosh are his only choices, and the price gap makes a compelling argument in favor of Windows.

You might ask ... "Then, why does Microsoft even care about Linux at all?"

Microsoft cares about Linux for the same reason it cares about UNIX:  The real profits to be made in this industry are in the enterprise machine room -- selling servers.  In this environment, Windows competes on a level playing field with UNIX and Linux.  That means they compete daily with IBM, HP, Sun, and of course, RedHat.  Novell and SCO compete in that space as well but they are not big players.  Nor are the other Linux vendors.   

So, if IBM, Sun, and HP care little about the future of Linux, why wouldn't Microsoft challenge RedHat in court?  Because they don't have to!

In order to keep RedHat at bay, all Microsoft has to do is create that all important Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) in the minds of would-be RHEL customers.  If customers know that Microsoft already has established cross-patent agreements with Sun and Novell, and if there is "patent parity" (a kind of a 'balance of power') between Microsoft and its other competitors in the space (IBM & HP), but RedHat while offering "indemnification" of sorts, has no such protections from serious litigation, Microsoft need not follow through with it's implied threats. 

Sure, the cross-patent agreement gives Novell a leg-up in the space but they are a much smaller player than RedHat.  Microsoft can afford to throw them a bone if the end result is that RedHat gets squeezed out of the enterprise server market. 

Don't expect Microsoft to go after RedHat anytime soon.  For now, the threat of litigation ought to give RedHat customers sufficient pause to keep Microsoft happy.  At least until the verdicts are in regarding the SCO suit against IBM and the SCO-Novell litigation over UNIX intellectual property rights.  The outcomes of those trials will have a much greater effect on the future of Linux in the machine room (and hence on RedHat) than anything Microsoft is liable to do. 

As for Linux on the desktop, it's up to the Linux vendors themselves to make that happen.  Will they?  Only time will tell.

Topics: Operating Systems

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