Microsoft and Novell at two: Was the patent pact worth it?

Microsoft and Novell at two: Was the patent pact worth it?

Summary: Two years ago this month, in November 2006, Microsoft inked its controversial cross-licensing pact with Novell. Since the agreement was forged, a lot has happened.


Two years ago this month, in November 2006, Microsoft inked its controversial cross-licensing pact with Novell.

In exchange for Microsoft distributing to its customers certificates for Novell's SuSE Linux, Novell basically conceded that its implementation of Linux violated Microsoft patents and agreed its customers needed patent-enforcement protection. (That's not how Novell or Microsoft likes to portray the arrangement, but that's what it boiled down to, in essence.)

Since the agreement was forged, a lot has happened.

In the first few months after Novell and Microsoft announced their deal, Microsoft convinced a number of smaller Linux players they needed similar "patent protection" coverage. Among those who signed on Microsoft's dotted patent-infringement line: Linspire and Xandros.

Red Hat held firm and wouldn't succumb to CEO Steve Ballmer's infringement sabre-rattling. In March 2007, Yankee Group issued a study noting that Novell's share was growing vis-a-vis Red Hat's, and said Microsoft's certificate distribution was the main reason. And Microsoft and Novell proudly touted customers who they claimed were eager to seek shelter from potential Microsoft patent lawsuits by signing up for SuSE Linux.

In February 2007, Ballmer stated in no uncertain terms that the deal between Microsoft and Novell was proof that open-source vendors need to respect Microsoft's intellectual property. One month later,Microsoft licensing officials made the bold (and as still publicly unsupported) claim that Linux and other free software violated 235 Microsoft patents.

Novell definitely benefited financially from the Microsoft pact. Its deal with Microsoft helped keep Novell in business, some industry watchers went so far as to say. But Novell came to be seen by many open source purists as a sell-out and little more than Microsoft's patsy in Redmond's ongoing Windows vs. Linux and closed-source vs. open-source battles.

In the past year, there have been no new Linux vendors lining up to sign patent-protection deals. Microsoft's open-source backers, led by Sam Ramji & Co., have been endeavoring to undo some of the damage Ballmer's anti-open-source rhetoric has done since Novell and Microsoft signed their agreement.

How would you rate the two-year old Microsoft-Novell deal, at this point? A positive for customers, but a negative for Novell? A win for all parties (Microsoft, customers and Novell)? A wash?

Update: Microsoft issued a press release on November 18 to commemorate the Novell-Microsoft anniversary.  Microsoft is citing interoperability advances (that I've always thought would have been possible without the pact) and new customers as proof that the relationship has been a resounding success. From the release:

"In the second year of their business collaboration agreement, Microsoft and Novell have added more than 200 new joint customers, including Alticor Inc., BP Oil International Ltd. and China Mobile Ltd., which are receiving certificates from Microsoft for three-year priority support subscriptions for Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. When the five-year agreement was signed in November 2006, Microsoft purchased certificates to sell to customers, which then redeemed those certificates with Novell for a subscription to SUSE Enterprise. In the first two years of the agreement, Novell has invoiced more than 70 percent of the original certificate purchase."

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


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Sheer brilliance

    Not that I'm going to start any wars or anything, but from a business perspective this deal was totally worth it.

    Microsoft got to wiggle its way into mixed source environments. Novell got a lifeline and became a bigger Linux player. Double bonus is the FSF is still seething (half kidding on that one).

    What's not to love ;)
    Larry Dignan
    • Funny

      You're a funny guy Larry.

      People who need serious computing power completely ignore MS and their sycophants.
      Tim Patterson
      • What company do YOU work for?

        I work for a really large company. We use all flavours of un*x, linux, windows (32 and 64 bit) as well as Mainframe.
        It all depends on what you are doing, what apps you are running and what your end goal is.
        We have lots of large windows servers and lots of small linux servers, and lots of large and small un*x servers. So - - tell me, why aren't there any LARGE linux servers around? OH that's right, linux is still 'catching up' to Microsoft and Un*x in the datacenter.
        PS I should say, that, the exception to this rule in our shop is VMWARE ESX which runs on linux.
        • No large Linux servers? are you high????

          Showing off your mental retardation problem again, are you?

          You ask, "Why aren't there any LARGE servers around?" Are you serious?? They're sitting at the head of the top 500 supercomputers list.

          A better question is where are the large Windows servers? Seeing how 8 cores is the maximum that MS will allow you to run, without paying MAJOR $$$$$$$$$$$ (not just a few $$$, LOTS OF $$$$$$$$$$$!), yes, where indeed are those large servers? They're all running various forms of *nix, you ignorant twit.

          Windows, as usual for Microsoft products, has artificially low performance limitations hard-coded in the system.
        • That's a ridiculous statement

          The following is a ridiculous statement made by an ignorant person.

          "So - - tell me, why aren't there any LARGE linux servers around? OH that's right, linux is still 'catching up' to Microsoft and Un*x in the datacenter."

          Here's an actual real life engineering question for you: "Can you tell me why Microsoft has yet to fix its file 9 problem with chkdsk?" This problem will immediately neutralize AND render useless the functionality of any system on which it occurs, disabling proper execution of the filesystem, requiring immediate attention; AND this corrupt functionality has been around for 10 years.

          Please do tell me why Microsoft has yet to fix this file 9 engineering problem with chkdsk, that threatens nearly all of its installed base of operating systems? It is a lot more important than "My dog's bigger than your dog arguments."

          CHKDSK is verifying security descriptors (stage 3 of 3)...
          Repairing the security file record segment.
          Deleting an index entry with Id 8447 from index $SII of file 9.
          Deleting an index entry with Id 31126 from index $SII of file 9.
          Deleting an index entry with Id 50636 from index $SII of file 9.
          Deleting an index entry with Id 31126 from index $SDH of file 9.
          Deleting an index entry with Id 50636 from index $SDH of file 9.
          Deleting an index entry with Id 8447 from index $SDH of file 9.
          Replacing invalid security id with default security id for file 1461234.
          Security descriptor verification completed.
          Windows found problems with the file system.

          APPLIES TO

          * Microsoft Windows 2000
          * Microsoft Windows XP
          * Microsoft Windows Vista
          * Microsoft Windows 7?

  • Two out of three ain't bad

    [i]How would you rate the two-year old Microsoft-Novell deal, at this point? A positive for customers, but a negative for Novell? A win for all parties (Microsoft, customers and Novell)? A wash?[/i]

    Microsoft: lots of press and a boost to the FUD for chump change. [b]Win.[/b]
    Novell: lots of press, bad PR is better than no press, cash to keep the doors open: [b]Win.[/b]
    Users: Total yawn. [b]Wash[/b]
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Agreed, but paying MS "protection money" is shady business

      But I guess they always were the mafia... :\
  • NO!

    It was an anti consumer and anti OSS pact.
    Novell & M$ will soon show up, hat in hand, in Washington for a bailout.
    Linux Geek
    • ROTFLMAO, The Court Jester Strikes Again!! NT

  • No impact at all

    This FUD filled threat from MS never was taken seriously by my organization nor by me as a consumer. We use non-Novell Linux, Apple and Microsoft OS just fine and the lawyers have blessed it.
  • A win for everyone

    and the bottom line pretty much agrees.
  • Massive damage to the openSUSE community

    The deal has inflicted huge damage to the openSUSE community. Many openSUSE users and development contributors turned away in disgust, and sought themselves another Linux distro.

    The deal was very unfortunate. No doubt about it. But I think we should move on.

    Novell and openSUSE are still major contributors to Linux development in general (for instance kernel development). So it would be a pity for Linux in general, if openSUSE and SLED would disappear.

    And let's not forget: openSUSE is a fine distro. Good German quality. Adding the missing multimedia support is as easy as in Ubuntu (thanks to the community). And each version receives no less than two years of security and stability updates. All for free.... :-)
  • Every pack must have at least one egg-sucker, it looks like

    If Novell has to be IT, so be it.

    I threw my last set of Suse disks in the garbage, along with the box and the Sears catalog sized book that went with them.

    If you lie down with dogs... you'll wake with fleas. Stink, too!
    Ole Man
  • It was disappointing that...

    ...Novell caved to Microsoft's empty threats and bullying, but I don't think it did any damage to Linux.
    Henry Miller
  • Rehashing opinion doesn't make it fact

    The agreement legally documented that there was no confirmed infringement by either party and, for the right to know that risk went away, Microsoft paid Novell a LOT more than Novell paid Microsoft. Shady relative to being like a cross-license but involving GPL on one side yes but an open admission of infringement, not only no but extra effort was made to make that part of the legal documentation which was made public. You can call it something else as many times as you want and you are entitled to your opinion but it doesn't alter the facts.

    It seems a bit biased and perhaps irresponsible to leave out the results of the interoperability portion of the agreement given the question the post asks overall. Many customers would suggest that they did win but not because of the intellectual property stuff. They won because interoperability was advanced in meaningful ways around document formats, virtualization, identity and systems management. They also won because Novell started what has become a more significant "move to the middle" of Microsoft if you consider Microsoft to have started on the far right and FOSS on the far left when it comes to open source, interoperability, software patents and more.

    When the deal was struck everyone said Novell had been had. They were naive and Microsoft would use this to kill Novell and, from there Linux and perhaps FOSS. How about giving Novell a little credit in retrospect for a bold, controversial move that isn't 100% like-able but, maybe, just maybe, fundamentally exposed a weakness in Microsoft and started them on a path that will forever leave them changed with regard to how they view Open Source (if not the GPL specifically), their place in the IT landscape and the need to interoperate and that showed them they can benefit from coopetition and don't need to put competitors out of business to advance their own position.

    You don't ever have to be comfortable with the whole thing to acknowledge that some good did come of it.
  • We're now a non-SuSE Linux Shop...

    Thank you Microsoft. You finally nudged us to be a one-vendor Red Hat Linux shop.
    Basic Logic
    • Two computers in the basement is not a "shop".

      • Never said...

        what kind of "shop" it was... just saying.
  • What will the Bilski decision's impact be?

    There was clearly a short-term benefit to Novell but I believe it will wear off as the traction for MS's anti-OpenSource FUD decreases, partially through MS's own efforts, as the article noted.

    Less clear is what the swing in judicial opinion towards business-method patents as evidenced in the Bilski decision will mean in the long term to software patents. If some of the side-opinions in that case are any indication, judicial will to strike down the patentability of software may also loom. Then what value will this be? None, even in the short term. And then the negative good will generated by the Microsoft-Novell fingercuff move will only increase.

    stay tuned
  • More Posturing

    More posturing FUD from Microsoft. I think that the authors of the above responses all realize that. It hurt Novell badly in the UNIX community if not the rest of the world. Does that matter? Not yet, but the world that used to be sucked in by M$ is becoming more aware.

    You can fool some of the people all of the time, and that's quickly becoming the minority that buys MS FUD.