Reality check: Microsoft isn't waving the white flag

Reality check: Microsoft isn't waving the white flag

Summary: Much of what you are reading about the Microsoft-Novell alliance announced Thursday is overblown. There is no hell freezing over, no snowballs melting and definitely no white flags fluttering over the Microsoft headquarters building. Microsoft is not conceding that desktop Linux is gaining ground. It's not admitting that its closed-source strategy has failed.

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It makes for good headlines, but the reality is Microsoft isn't conceding anything with its newly minted Novell alliance.

There is no hell freezing over, no snowballs melting and definitely no white flags fluttering over the Microsoft headquarters building. Microsoft is not conceding that desktop Linux is gaining ground. It's not admitting that its closed-source strategy has failed.

Sure, Microsoft is listening to customers' requests for better interoperability. But if you think the Redmondians are throwing in the towel, vis-a-vis open source, you are underestimating severely Microsoft's well-proven ability to come out ahead on any partnership to which it commits.

Not everyone is portraying Microsoft as caving

I'd agree with Tim Patterson, one of the commentors on my site, that Novell CEO "Hovsepian fell into the trap."

(Hovsepian didn't completely disappear into the rabbit hole, however. Novell decided to take its antitrust suit against Microsoft over WordPerfect off the table before interoperability discussions began, confirmed Justin Steinman, director of marketing for Linux for Novell.)

"This (Microsoft-Novell deal) is all because they both want to screw Oracle and Red Hat," a Linux consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. "It smacks of the Hitler and Stalin alliance. Two bitter enemies getting together to bonk the other bad guys on the head."

Microsoft didn't need a special alliance with Novell in order to get Windows to run virtually on SUSE Linux or to make SUSE Linux to run on the Longhorn Server Hypervisor. Nor was a high-level alliance required to convince Novell to distribute Microsoft's forthcoming Open Office plug-in. Ditto with the pair's commitment to shared Web-services management tools.

As I said before: The crux of the deal revolves around patents and IP licensing. It sounds like Microsoft had been discussing the feasibility of forging some kind of agreement with other Linux vendors, too, but Novell was the first to bite.

After the dust settled from the press conference orchestrated Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to announce the deal, I had a chance to chat with Bill Hilf, general manager of Microsoft's platform strategy (and Linux point-man). I asked whether Microsoft had gone over the SUSE Linux distribution with a fine-toothed comb in order to insure it didn't violate Microsoft IP before inking this deal.

"We won't talk about how we're looking at source code for violations," Hilf said. "We hold a lot of software patents. We will continue to develop patents, as will the Linux vendors. The patent footprint overlap will continue to grow. We wanted to get ahead of that."

So does that mean SUSE Linux made it through Microsoft's IP checks? Or it failed, but got a hall pass. No one's talking. And as far as the deal having any kind of broad-reaching implications for Microsoft's intentions for working within the confines of the GNU General Public License (GPL)?

"We're still building software how we always built software. The hard nut to crack is how we provide patent coverage where the GPL makes that difficult," Hilf said.

That's as close as Microsoft intends to come to the GPL. Period.

In a nutshell, like Microsoft's other recent interoperability agreements with JBoss, MySQL, SugarCRM and Zend, Microsoft's Novell agreement has some interesting elements, but not any kind of far-reaching implications for the company's development, marketing or deployment strategies that I can see.

Topic: Microsoft

About

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).

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