As was widely reported yesterday, Linspire has signed a cross-licensing agreement with Microsoft that gives the company access to a heap of Microsoft technology, as well as seals a patent moratorium between users of Linspire products and Microsoft. Of note is the fact that patents was not likley to play a large part in the deal, as Linspire doesn't own a large number of them. This agreement is more obviously oriented around collaboration than previous ones, boosting interoperability in IM (adding the ability to make voice chat calls to Windows Messenger users from Linspire's IM client), adding support for Windows Media 10 codecs, gaining access to TrueType fonts, and encouraging support for Microsoft document formats (read: OOXML).
Not surprisingly, the anouncement faced condemnation from the same quarters that reacted negatively to the Xandros and Novell agreements. A comment on the OS News web site by someone using the handle einfeldt explained why:
Many people in the FOSS communities are responding negatively to these Microsoft-Novell type deals, and I remain queasy about the deals, simply because Microsoft is a formidable opponent whose considerable power is based on its monopoly status. Surely, Microsoft would not enter any deal which did not leave our FOSS communities weaker; at least that is my personal gut impulse and the basis for my discomfort with these deals. Surely Microsoft must be preparing to file budget-breaking patent infringement lawsuits against Debian developers or Red Hat or some other member of our community; at least that is the mistrust that has been gnawing at the back of my head. And maybe Microsoft will file such suits (although I doubt that those lawsuits have any merit, so probably not).
The recent Linspire deal, however, gave einfeldt reason to reconsider, as he explained in his next paragraph:
Kevin Carmon's 14 June 2007 blog has left me thinking that maybe Microsoft really is being compelled by its customers' demands to learn technical interoperability with GNU Linux. After all, FOSS solutions have been growing at a tremendous pace, and most of Microsoft's customers already are using FOSS throughout their organization. Maybe we, the FOSS community, really have arrived. Maybe we are starting to force Microsoft's hand. Maybe Microsoft has no choice but to pay Novell $480 million dollars for its deal.
I think Microsoft must work to build bridges to Linux, but not because they are facing financial ruin. Windows 2003 server has proven wildly successful, and though Vista has its detractors, it appears to be selling well. Rather, Microsoft, as a public company, needs to pursue growth, as that is what investors expect. New markets are one thing, but what about Microsoft's core OS businesses?
It will be impossible for Microsoft to capture 100% of any operating system market. Kevin Carmony, CEO of Linspire, explained why in a blog post explaining the rationale for the deal:
As good as Microsoft believes Microsoft Windows is, some people will in fact choose Linux. If Microsoft can contribute in a win-win way towards a "better" Linux experience, some people might be willing to pay a little extra for that. After years in the prominent position of desktop computer operating systems and applications, Microsoft certainly has many assets, which can be brought to bear to improve Linux (technology, interoperability, intellectual property, distribution channels, marketing, etc.).
Though Microsoft, as a general purpose OS, has managed to satisfy the vast majority of computer users, they will NEVER be able to satisfy everyone. Linux users in particular are, quite simply, different. Things which might turn off non-technical users turn on Linux users...particularly those who never would have used Linspire's hybrid product even before the recent agreement with Microsoft.
There are still new users to be found, particularly in the developing world, which explains Microsoft's decision to offer a stripped-down version of Windows for $3.00 in developing markets. In more saturated markets (at least in the desktop sector), it makes more sense to concede that some users will never be convinced, and instead opt to spread more Microsoft technnology onto non-Microsoft operating systems as a way of yielding revenue from such people.
This has a number of benefits for fans of alternative OSes, chief among them that it plugs them more completely into a global desktop computing ecosystem largely oriented around Windows users. For those with a more ideological bent to their fandom, it's worth remembering that most of the typical software stack is proprietary.
Even Richard Stallman would have a hard time claiming that proprietary software companies have added nothing to the software art. Stallman would never have used Linspire even before the agreement, and others take an equally purist stance. That doesn't mean YOU have to take that stance...and users of Linspire clearly didn't.
Microsoft's agreements with Linux vendors also happen to dispel "patent risk," which to my mind is as illusory as ghosts given that the odds of Microsoft ever filing patents suits against Linux are virtually nil (huge risks down that path, given that patents can bite Microsoft as much as Linux...probably more so). Patents don't seem a terribly important aspect of these deals, particularly when you consider that Linspire is not a holder of a large number of them.
Patents, however, sure get people's attention, particularly in the open source community. Countries sometimes conduct military exercises in the vicinity of nation's with whom they have a disagreement, even though they have no intention of invading. That's a more optimistic interpretation of Microsoft's recent patent sabre-rattling.