Steve Ballmer seems to have walked into a burning building with a single sentence that confirmed in the minds of some people their fears of a Microsoft threat to Linux. The full text of his comments can be found here (and should be read, as it talks more about good old fashioned competition than patent bombs), but the relevant paragraph (and sentence) is quoted below:
That's why we've done the deal we have with Novell, where not only are we working on technical interoperability between Linux and Windows but we've also made sure that we could provide the appropriate, for the appropriate fee, Novell customers also get essentially the rights to use our patented intellectual property. And I think it's great the way Novell stepped up to kind of say intellectual property matters. People use Red Hat, at least with respect to our intellectual property in a sense have an obligation to eventually to compensate us.
So there you have it, the shadowy figures on the grassy knoll, the American flag flapping on an airless moon...pointy ears poking from beneath Spock's knit cap (I was in Vegas a few weeks ago and just had to visit the Star Trek Experience at the Hilton). Microsoft is going to sue the bejeesus out of Linux. Stock up on a year's worth of food and water and head for the bomb-proof bunker under grandpa's toolshed out back!!!
Excuse me for being so sarcastic, but can we please calm down for a moment and THINK about what was said?
As I've noted in the past, the odds of Microsoft not owning a patent on something of relevance to Linux or the open source software stack is practically nil. There's a reason Richard Stallman felt it necessary to write licenses that create poison pills for anyone who tries to leverage patents against GPL products. Patents are pernicious things that can affect anyone, including vendors of mobile email solutions (RIM), providers of VoIP (Vonage), and even large multi-billion dollar software companies based in Redmond, Washington who THOUGHT they had paid proper licensing fees for MP3 technology.
That's a cold hard reality, and no amount of wishing it otherwise is going to change the fact that patents related to Linux technology are owned by somebody, INCLUDING Microsoft.
Microsoft would LIKE to receive compensation for that as much as any other patent owner, and big surprise, CEOs of companies who own patents hold such opinions. Stating that "gee, it would be nice if money grew on trees," however, is very different than saying "we are going to blow up farmers until they plant trees that grow money for us."
In some cities, citizens do in fact own the sidewalk that runs in front of their house. In theory, they COULD insist that people who walk on "their" sidewalk place $0.25 in a little jar that sits on their lawn. They might quickly find, however, that they must pay $3.00 just to walk down the street due to charges from OTHER sidewalk owners responding to his charges, or worse, everyone will just start walking in the street. So, sidewalk owners won't do that.
Ownership rights are a useful basis upon which to negotiate joint technology agreements. Two companies sit down together and agree NOT to do what they think they technically could do to each other even if, in the final reckoning, they would have to be suicidally stupid to actually do what they think they can (now say that backwards very fast). Such things serve as the basis of disarmament treaties in the political realm. The same rationale applies in business relations.
In the political realm, there is always resistance to viewing former enemies as anything less than a bitter opponent. American politicians had a lot of trouble viewing Russia as anything but a cold war competitor (that had bad effects, too, as a Marshall plan for Russia back when Yeltsin was around would have done a lot of good...not that that has much relevance to Microsoft vs. Linux), and today, plenty still want to view China as the "bad guy." It makes international relations nicely black and white, a good guy versus bad guy vision of reality that helps to rouse the party base around leaders who oppose cooperation.
Such resistance exists in the politics of software development models as well. Under any other circumstances, a single sentence tacked on to a stack of comments made by the CEO of Microsoft would pass with little notice. When lots of people are looking for smoking guns and grand conspiracies, however, people find them in odd places.
This is, in my opinion, a non event. I still think the notion of a patent assault against Linux to be so stupid that Microsoft would be mad to even attempt it. That doesn't mean, however, that Microsoft should just lay down its patent weaponry and make a blanket grant to users of open source software. So long as its at least feasible for a competitor to use patent weaponry against you (which is the case in the absence of a Novell-style agreement), you keep those weapons in reserve, even if you would never be the one to hit the button first.
By the way, this is MY opinion, not Microsoft's. If you think I speak for Microsoft, you need to have your head examined.