Mr. Ballmer's personal mushroom cloud

Mr. Ballmer's personal mushroom cloud

Summary: 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.

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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.

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

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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106 comments
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  • All that is being asked

    are what are the 235 patents? Why? So they can either be validated or refuted. Until Microsoft puts up the patents this is nothing more than scare tactics to try and force payment. ]:)
    Linux User 147560
    • Why doesn't the FSF do the same?

      I know, you hate the fact the FSF found all the probable violations don't you?
      No_Ax_to_Grind
      • again..they did no such thing

        damn man, you are dense. Another, why should they do MS's homework, if MS knows its happening they have to file a suit. Guess they aren't going to do that, so your point is moot. Glad if someone was claiming you violated their IP you would just show everything right? Now go on home and come back when you can make a point, until then you're just the same old lame no_facts.
        Monkey_MCSE
        • Please don't feed the trolls

          The GP poster (in a unique moment of honesty) has admitted to trolling the board.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Just out of curiosity...

            ...why do you call him the "GP poster"?

            I do remember him recently admitting to pulling people's chains (otherwise known as trolling), but what we see here is pure propaganda, probably because neither he nor any other of the usual gang have a better defense for MS on this issue.

            NAG does sometimes have something thoughtful to say, which makes him only a part-time troll.
            John L. Ries
          • Re: NAG

            <NAG does sometimes have something thoughtful to say, which makes him only a part-time troll.>

            Nah, somebody hacked his ZD account, and they are posting semi-intelligent comments to either confuse the readers, or discredit NAG.
            ;-)
            handydan918
        • Yes, especially since MS insists that everybody come to them with patent

          violations. Why do they insist on reversing things with their own patents?????
          DonnieBoy
      • They didnt find any that were for sure violations...

        theirs was a list of potential violations!!!
        mrOSX
      • Many patents have been gifted to free software organisations

        it would be interesting to see how many microsoft products violate these patents. (and products of other corporations).
        stevey_d
  • I don't accept that

    Claiming that Linux users owe MS money for infringement of unspecified patents is the just about the worst possible way to get Linux users to patronize MS. I took the initial such claim as a personal insult (I actually do try to follow the law) and said as much in a talkback to one of your previous posts on this subject (something to the effect that whatever inclination I ever had to resume patronizing MS had completely disappeared). As little as you like to admit it, there are real reasons why some people (myself included) resent MS and go out of their way to avoid doing business with them (envy is not one of them; I don't envy racketeers). You may not like the fact that US law prohibits much of the conduct we object to, but even if the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts were repealed in full, I would still object to the conduct and I would still avoid doing business with MS. I'm quite certain that I am not the only "ABMer" who feels this way.

    Steve Ballmer was Bill Gates' right hand man long before he was appointed president of MS. It is therefore to be assumed that he had a major role in formulating the abusive and illegal policies of the past and certainly bears full responsibility for what MS has done since he was appointed president. The rhetorical war against the free software movement began on his watch and is therefore his responsibility. The present strategy of patenting everything possible and using the resulting patents as a weapon against what remains of the competition was implemented on his watch so he properly takes the blame for it. Given the above, it is only natural that Mr. Ballmer is seen as a less than benevolent figure by those outside of the MS ecosystem.
    John L. Ries
    • What in the quoted sentence...

      ...say Microsoft plans to sue RedHat users? Maybe he just thinks that RedHat users should be morally obligated. It doesn't say Ballmer plans to back that obligation with force (though they are willing to take away the risk overhang through cross-licensing deals).

      Microsoft isn't forcing OEMs not to ship with Windows anymore, so you are shouting at past behavior (and I'm not defending that).
      John Carroll
      • If Mr. Ballmer wants to claim...

        ...that I, as a Red Hat Linux (Fedora) user, am obligated (morally or otherwise) to pay MS for the privilege of using Linux, then he can be a lot more specific about the the justification for the statement. Otherwise, it should be treated as bluster at best, extortion at worst, and a lie (deceptive, but not necessarily false communication) in either event. In any event, it's insulting to those of us who choose to avoid MS software altogether rather than to pirate it. It's not even close to the first time Ballmer has made a public statement like this, so no excuses; he deserves as much contempt as Darl McBride did for making similar unsubstantiated statements about Linux (for the sake of argument, I'll assume there is no connection between the two sets of statements).

        I'll note that the only reason MS isn't forcing OEMs to ship all units with Windows anymore is that they're under court order not to (I assume that neither Gates, nor Ballmer are brave enough to risk fines or imprisonment to defend the principle that they have the right to offer their software under whatever terms they choose to dictate).
        John L. Ries
        • So let me ask

          Are you saying its not possible for there to be patent violations when the FSF found some themselves and then refused to tell everyone what they are?
          No_Ax_to_Grind
          • Not their job

            Ballmer is the one who claims I owe MS royalties for using Red Hat, not the FSF. If he actually wants to be taken seriously, then let him itemize the bill or be thought a liar and an extortionist.
            John L. Ries
          • they also didn't say where microsoft violated FSF patents

            a very large number of patents have been gifted in preparation for any patent war.
            Bring it on, and we'll see who's left standing at the end.
            stevey_d
        • Re: If Mr. Ballmer wants to claim

          Since the two statements are pretty much the same wordage that came from SCO and now Microsoft, either somebody is cribbing or evil minds think alike.
          Apologists will always forget past deeds and ignore the stream of rants emanating from Redmond.
          I am not surprised at either Mr. Ballmer's copious rants about Linux or articles seeking to paint him in good character, they are truly the typical things that get slung over on our lawn.
          sboyce9
      • I've been censored - what happened to my response to this post???

        ???
        deaf_e_kate
    • Was the topic abotu anti-trust?

      If so I missed it and you post made no sense as far as the topic is concerned.
      No_Ax_to_Grind
      • John thought differently

        At least he chose to argue with me, instead of dismissing me out of hand.

        The topic was whether the hostile reaction to Ballmer's little statement made any sense. My point was that the lack of trust many of us have in him is rational and well deserved given what he has said and done in the past.

        If either you or John think that people shouldn't judge present MS behavior in the context of past behavior then I'd like to see a rational explanation as to why.
        John L. Ries
    • Ditto John L. Ries

      Nice post~MS deserves none of my money so I moved to Mac.
      nomoremicrosoft