The gag is off: Samba's Allison talks turkey on Microsoft-Novell deal

The gag is off: Samba's Allison talks turkey on Microsoft-Novell deal

Summary: On December 21, word leaked out that lead Samba developer Jeremy Allison quit Novell in protest over the Microsoft-Novell alliance, unveiled in early November. Other than sharing the fact that he had taken a new job with Google, Allison said he couldn't provide specifics on his decision until some time after December 29, which would be his last day at Novell.

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On December 21, word leaked out that lead Samba developer Jeremy Allison quit Novell in protest over the Microsoft-Novell alliance, unveiled in early November. Other than sharing the fact that he had taken a new job with Google, Allison said he couldn't provide specifics on his decision until some time after December 29, which would be his last day at Novell.

Today is December 30, so the gag order is over. And Allison isn't holding back.

My favorite line from Allison in this latest interview: "I don't want to give my efforts to a company that is willing to try and trick their way out of their license obligations on my software."

Here are more details on Allison's plans and perceptions of the patent agreement between Microsoft and Novell that has generated so much controversy over the past couple of months. This interview was conducted via e-mail.

Allison: First things first :-) . I want to make it really clear I'm *NOT* speaking on behalf of Google. I don't even start there until Jan 2nd 2007 so I'm not even an employee when answering these questions :-) .

The answers here are my personal ones and are not in any way representing Google positions, plans, statements or even ideas :-) . They're all my ideas (crazy as they might be :-) .

MJF: Understood. Question No. 1: Did Google recruit you, once it was plain you were unhappy about the MS-Novell deal? Or did you approach Google? In other words, how did your hiring actually come to pass? (I'm asking this because some people were speculating you already had decided to go to Google before the Microsoft-Novell deal was announced.)

Allison: I approached Google once I found out enough about the deal to realize that Novell had got itself into a position where they couldn't back out without severe penalties, and thus they were really stuck in a trap of their own making, I realized Microsoft held all the cards in the relationship and they had no interest in helping Novell back out of a big mistake (especially when its in their favor). They promptly demonstrated that at the initial press conference, when (Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer publicly humiliated Novell (IMHO) by making direct and rather ugly threats against other Linux distributions.

It didn't take long as I'd actually interviewed at Google before taking the job at Novell, but had decided to join Novell at that time. So people needn't think Google dropped their high hiring standards in order to hire me :-) , I'd already passed their rather grueling interview process before, it was more a matter of them checking I hadn't gotten significantly worse since then :-) .

MJF: What's going to be your new title -- and responsibilities -- at Google?

Allison: I have no idea of the title (and they don't matter anyway :-) . Responsibilities will be continuing my work on Samba and working out where it fits for Google.

MJF: Is Google interested in productizing Samba in some way? Can it? Or will Samba remain an independent technology?

Allison: I can't comment on Google's product plans, but Samba is and always will be an independent project.

MJF: What do you see at Google, in terms of its commitment to open source, that you think differentiates it from Novell and other players in the space?

Allison: Google actually does a lot to promote Open Source, and I'm hoping to help them do more. Looking at Google contributions the "Summer of Code" is an example of the sort of thing that Google does amazingly well. The Samba project in the past has had people approach us offering money, but other than a travel fund and software purchase fund (we need to buy MSDN licenses) we don't have many expenses.

What we *really* need is more and good quality code. This (IMHO) is what Google understands (it's all about the code) - we don't have the management infrastructure to convert donations into funded code contributions, and Summer of Code did this for us (taking on that management burden). As goes Samba, so do many many other Open Source/Free Software projects. I think Novell and other players like Red Hat, HP, IBM and Sun do a lot by hiring Open Source/Free Software developers directly to create much of the ecosystem and I see Google as an important and healthy part of that.

The more Open Source/Free Software gets used the better the IT economy gets for all players within it (and people get more freedom too). The same goes for Microsoft, who I'd love to see get genuinely involved in this space. Unfortunately I don't see the Microsoft/Novell patent agreement as a way to get genuinely involved - it's still about trying to control a competitor and ultimately to try and destroy it. I've joked with Microsoft Executives in the past that Microsoft needs to see a couple of bad quarters revenue before they can seriously start to do anything with Open Source/Free Software. They're leaving money on the floor by not doing so, but unfortunately they're still printing money fast enough via the monopoly to make the Free Software money not worth bending over to pick up :-) .

MJF: Your opinion: Will Microsoft convince other Linux distributors to sign deals similar to the one it forged with Novell?

Allison: I don't think they have any chance with the major ones. Niche players might be tempted, but I expect the business fallout from this to be so negative that no one else is tempted once people realize it's another attempt to cast legal clouds over Linux to scare people into choosing Windows yet again :-) .

MJF: Why do you believe Novell signed the deal with Microsoft? And do you believe Novell or other Linux distributions infringe on Microsoft patents?

Allison: I don't know exactly why they signed it. I don't think (Novell CEO) Ron Hovsepian is clueless or malevolent. I've met him and think he is a really nice guy. My guess is that the negotiations for the useful parts of the agreement (the virtualization part and the federated directory interoperability part) had, as Ron says, been going on for months and just before Novell wanted to seal the deal Microsoft turned up with "there's just this one more thing we want you to sign....." and in desperation to get the other parts of the deal done they rushed it through.

It was carefully prepared by Microsoft legal to try and bypass the GPLv2, and I think to their shame Novell helped them do this. I've spoken with Novell executives since I came out internally against the deal and their position on it has been "if it doesn't violate the GPLv2 what is your problem?" The problem is I do think it violates the intent of the GPLv2 if not the letter, as we explained in the Samba Team statement on this.

The intent *matters*. As I tried to explain in my resignation letter, if you're screwing over some of your major suppliers by following what your lawyers see as the *letter* of a license, not the good faith intent of the license, then you can't expect those suppliers to say "well done, you really tricked us on that one.....".

The GPLv3 will fix any possible hole in the letter of the license (and Samba will hopefully move to it once the copyright contributors are happy with it). But in the meantime I don't want to give my efforts to a company that is willing to try and trick their way out of their license obligations on my software. When I talked to the Novell Executives we just had to agree to disagree. In part, I see this deal as a personal failure on my part.

When I first heard that Microsoft was going to take Linux seriously by doing an agreement with Novell I was delighted. But the more I looked at the details the more unhappy I got with the patent part. I tried to raise the alarm internally but was too timid with my criticisms until it was too late and the deal was signed (I heard about it about 5 days before it was signed). A nagging doubt is that if I had just spoken out louder against the deal I might have been able to change something, but I was too quiet until too late. It's *hard* to be the one saying the emperor has no clothes, especially whilst listening to others praising the finery of the silk stitching :-) .

As for Linux distributions infringing on Microsoft patents if Microsoft believes that there is a clear path for them to follow to enforce their patent rights. So long as they are not doing that I think it's fair to say "Microsoft patents, *what* Microsoft patents ?"

Topic: Enterprise Software

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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