Why Microsoft won't assault Linux

Why Microsoft won't assault Linux

Summary: Whenever Microsoft makes an agreement with a competitor, its actions are viewed with a fair bit of suspicion. The recent agreement between Novell and Microsoft is no exception.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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Whenever Microsoft makes an agreement with a competitor, its actions are viewed with a fair bit of suspicion. The recent agreement between Novell and Microsoft is no exception. Plenty around the blogosphere wondered aloud where the exploding pens were hidden, and on ZDNet, David Berlind believed that the Novell agreement, coupled with previous agreements with Sun, leaves the way clear for Microsoft to make a full legal assault on both RedHat - vendor of the leading Linux distribution - and open source products in general.

Some degree of suspicion is understandable. No one would mistake Microsoft for a company that is good at losing money. Every agreement Microsoft enters into surely is done with an eye towards whether or not it will benefit Microsoft.

I don't consider that a flaw, however, so much as the mark of a company that is doing what it is supposed to be doing. Furthermore, Novell is doing the same thing. I believe this agreement offers wins to both sides, as I described in a previous post.

There are strong reasons, however, why Microsoft will avoid riding into legal battle against Linux. Here are a few:

1. Patents cut both ways: Microsoft isn't the only one with a patent arsenal. Just as Microsoft has patents it can use against other companies - or open source - other companies with an interest in Linux may have patents they can use against Microsoft. I've described software patents as nuclear weapons that both sides in an arms race acquire as defense against an opponents growing arsenal. Defense, however, is not achieved through launching them against each other, but through the "Mutually Assured Destruction" that would rain down were they ever to actually use them.

A Microsoft that goes after Linux on the basis of patents opens itself to countersuits by companies with an interest in Linux and patents which can be used against Microsoft.

Nobody has more patents than IBM.

2. Long-lasting ill will: It sure looks like Microsoft is working very hard to achieve a detente with open source. They are working with Zend to improve the PHP developer experience atop Windows. They are granting full access to the source code for Windows CE 6.0 (though that benefits Microsoft as much as programmers). They just blessed Mono, an open source version of the .NET runtime, through their Novell agreement.

What's the point of all that if they are just going to light the world on fire with subsequent legal bombs on Linux? There's currently a debate between the pragmatists and the idealists over the wording of the successor to the GPL. Certain quarters even seem to be open to the idea of using Microsoft technology atop - or within - an open source base.

An assault by Microsoft would quickly undermine the cause of the pragmatists and give the extremists the upper hand. Furthermore, I would expect the ill-will created to last about as long as antipathy towards SCO...which means pretty much forever.

I don't see why that would benefit Microsoft.

3. Regulatory oversight: Microsoft doesn't operate in a regulatory-free environment. A Microsoft assault on Linux using the monopoly power afforded by patents would not only awaken regulators in Brussels, but would likely aid the cause of those trying to block a consistent software patent policy in Europe. It's pretty easy to stoke fears of companies using software patents as battering rams if the largest software company in the world starts to use them against its biggest operating system competitor.

To summarize: going on a patent offensive would turn the gains from their agreement with Novell into losses. Microsoft will want to protect their IP, as well as generate revenue from it, but a better way to go about that is by licensing Microsoft-specific technology (like Windows Media formats) or protocols related to Windows interoperability while remembering that Microsoft has made a LOT of money by viewing their patent library as mostly a defensive tool.  Patents they may or may not have on core operating system functions are better put in the "defensive" category.

You can generate a lot of profit by maintaining peace with your neighbors...just ask Switzerland. Granted, great empires have been founded through an offensive posture, and the Roman one wouldn't have existed if not for a predilection for conquering nearby civilizations. On the other hand, Microsoft already HAS a great empire built entirely through trade. Why risk it all by creating a pointless war with the open source community?

That's why I doubt Microsoft will do it.

Topic: Microsoft

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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29 comments
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  • 1B

    For once, we mostly agree.

    However, you might put a bit more weight on "1(b):" the threat is more potent than the assault. A known danger creates less fear than an unknown one, which takes on the dimensions of the imagination.

    MS is well aware of this, which is one reason why in the last several rounds MS has avoided specific enumeration of its "intellectual property."
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Ah, the first letter in FUD...

      [i]"However, you might put a bit more weight on "1(b):" the threat is more potent than the assault. A known danger creates less fear than an unknown one, which takes on the dimensions of the imagination.

      MS is well aware of this, which is one reason why in the last several rounds MS has avoided specific enumeration of its "intellectual property.""[/i]

      Well said. If the patents in question were known, then it would be fairly easy to address. But I do believe John's assessment may be somewhat correct, as if Microsoft does start assaulting Linux, there will be a backlash.

      But I'm not convinced about Microsoft's patent saber-rattling. Ballmer has said for a long time there were IP problems in Linux. If that were true, would it have not been in Microsoft's best interest to have attacked then, before Linux became a viable Windows competitor?
      Tony Agudo
    • Microsoft HAS TO BE very careful in this process ...

      Part of their developing a working relationship with the Linux community HAS TO BE a clear message that the Linux community must not interpret this as an invitation to abuse the relationship. What I am trying to say here is that MS has to use a tone of speech that will tend to 1) discourage Linux distros from including questionable packages and 2) discourage developers from crossing the line when it comes to IP issues. I think it is one thing to create 'workarounds' for media tools that are not otherwise available for Linux. But once MS, for example, releases a reasonably priced media player for Linux, Linux users need to move from those quasi legal workarounds to licensed solutions. This is the transition that has to happen if the Linux community is to have a successful working relationship with the proprietary community. And it is not going to be an easy transition for either side. But I think it is only fair that those who reject DRM simply express that sentiment by not using DRM'd content. On the other hand, if you want DRM'd content on Linux (and we are not there yet by any stretch), you had better be ready to step up to the requirements of the content owners and their distribution channels. I see MS as being extremely reluctant historically to use IP threats against anybody, including other proprietary vendors, but they have IP obligations too and overt abusive conduct by members of the community might force their hand. Aside from that caveat, I think Linux can prosper alongside MS and other proprietary vendors.
      George Mitchell
      • The Russian Front

        [i]But I think it is only fair that those who reject DRM simply express that sentiment by not using DRM'd content.[/i]

        Did you notice yesterday's news? Chairman Bill was in Russia to convince the government there that their admission to the WTO hinges on them making Microsoft DRM mandatory for [b]all[/b] computers.

        Isn't that interesting?
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Can you provide a referrence (link) for that?

          If not, I will assume it to be FUD.
          George Mitchell
          • Of course

            [url=http://www.kommersant.com/p719683/r_528/]Enjoy[/url]
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Just to make things clear ...

            From the article:

            [b]?Microsoft is lobbying for DRM as a national antipiracy standard throughout the world,? said Alexander Chachava, president of the LETA company. ?That issue will most likely be brought up in Russia by the head of Microsoft. The global control system will increase Russia's chances for accession to the WTO. Piracy remains one of the biggest claims against Russia. The introduction of DRM will allow Microsoft to make a many-times larger turnover in Russia as well.?[/b]

            Note that it is Bill Gates who is pushing this and that it would "increase" Russia's chances of WTO membership. That does not mean it is required for membership, only that it would help their cause. Secondly, if implemented, DRM would basically apply to content, not to computing itself. There has been absolutely no indication from the tech industry that a DRM equipped box would preclude Linux. Only that today's Linux would not be able to access the DRM features on board and thus the user of that system would not be able to access DRM content. Big deal. That is like the situation prior to DVD Jon with DVDs. The bottom line is its THEIR content. They can do what they want with it. If you want to enjoy their content, you will need to play by their rules. That is where you and I see things differently. I see nothing wrong with that reality. You and a number of other posters seem to thing that all content should be free. The problem is that content costs money to produce and distribute and content creators expect to get at least some royalties. Granted, the prices charged are usually excessive, but if there were less piracy, perhaps there is a chance of prices going down on content. In any case, DRM will be a fact of life in a few years regardless whether the Russians buy into it or not and the Linux community will have no choice but to adjust to that reality. Over and out.
            George Mitchell
          • It looks like Russia is in ...

            with no mention of DRM ...

            http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/11/10/business/wto.php
            George Mitchell
  • One more reason.

    One other reason I can see is that right now the competition to Windows is scattered amongst many Linux distros. If MS nuked Linux tomorrow where would everyone go? Some might go to Windows but either due to preference, ill will, use model, or some combination of the above I would expect users to end up on some combination of Open Solaris or Mac (I'm guessing mostly the former). I think things are much better for MS with a scattered, disorganized competition than a mass consolidation on Open Solaris and Mac.
    enduser_z
  • Another big reason is Open Solaris is in the wings ready for any Linux

    atack. Microsoft would gain nothing and just strengthen open source, at the same time making themselves look like idiots. I really do not think an attack would be successfull, but in any case, there is Open Solaris.
    DonnieBoy
  • .../etc/hosts

    I like how NT-class Windows OSes store their hosts file in a subdirectory called etc, as some, but not all, *IXes do. Was some developer person OS-homesick, or was it just that it was easier to keep that part of the target pathname rather than rewrite a line or three of code?
    dpnewkirk
    • hardy har har

      It was probably more to make NT "POSIX Compliant" when they were trying to get government contracts in the 90's.
      toadlife
  • Making money

    Anyone with brains will assume that MS does what they think will make them money (MS' friends and enemies alike make this assumption). The real idiots are the ones that assume that what's good for MS is necessarily good for the rest of the world.
    John L. Ries
    • I think you underestimate Microsoft

      [i]Anyone with brains will assume that MS does what they think will make them money (MS' friends and enemies alike make this assumption).[/i]

      I'm not so sure. Bill seems to have a certain Messianic inclination to enlighten the world and bring it computing -- according to his own vision, certainly, but the idealism is there.

      [i]The real idiots are the ones that assume that what's good for MS is necessarily good for the rest of the world.[/i]

      I wouldn't call Bill an idiot.

      Note: saying the the Cult of Bill is idealistic doesn't mean that I look favorably on the prospect of a world remade to their vision. As a student of history, idealists with power make me nervous.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • I might be cynical, but...

        ...I've always assumed that the visionary pose was a ploy to move the industry in the direction MS wanted it to go. Doesn't always work, which is why most of us are still typing passwords and why Sender ID went nowhere (at least until MS loosened up the license terms).

        I agree with your comments about idealists with power. Far too many have tried to impose their version of Utopia by force.
        John L. Ries
      • An additional comment

        I don't think Bill is naive enough to believe that what's good for MS is necessarily good for the rest of the world.
        John L. Ries
        • Bill Clinton

          [i]I don't think Bill is naive enough to believe that what's good for MS is necessarily good for the rest of the world.[/i]

          Don't confuse narcissism with naivte. I strongly suspect that Bill really [b]does[/b] believe that what's good for Microsoft is good for the world. How could it be otherwise?

          Put another way, "Never underestimate the power of human self-deception." Compound that with the fact that Bill doesn't have to tolerate people who challenge his world view. It's a classic pattern.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
          • Interesting

            I hadn't thought about the narcissism model; looks like it might have some merit. I've been using the naked self-interest model all these years when analyzing MS' behavior and it's always worked fabulously, but now I have something else to think about. Thanks.
            John L. Ries
  • Novell Better Be Careful

    It is best to remember when making deals with Microsoft; the fin on their backs is part of the deal!
    chessmen
  • Why Microsoft won?t assault Linux - YET

    MS will not go on a legal offensive against Linux for the reasons
    JC outlines in the near future. MS will continue to tolerate Linux
    continuing prosperity in embedded and servers markets as these
    are also growing market for themselves (i.e. the pie is rapidly
    growing bigger).

    However IF Linux begins to make gains in the desktop market
    expect the gloves to come off. MS derives 100% of it's profit
    from it's desktop monopoly (windows and Office). It will not give
    these up as history shows it is not successful outside these two
    products.

    The deal with Novell was to settle with a big player in the
    workgroup competition case in the EU. Novell evidence about MS
    behaviour to destroy their interoperability formed an important
    part of the EC case. MS clearly doesn't want this enemy going
    forward.

    It is somewhat ironic that all the "partners" that have signed IP
    agreements with significant financial remuneration from MS have
    been major contributions to antitrust cases. A lesson that
    shouldn't be lost on anti-malware manufacturers.
    Richard Flude