Friday, November 03, 2006

I have been having a small back-and forth with PJ (Groklaw's supreme goddess, long may she reign) over just how bad the Microsoft-Novell deal is.

In case you hadn't heard, Microsoft and Novell entered into a patent covenant agreement in which each vows not to sue the other over the use of certain patents that either party might have rights to.

One interesting thing to note is that the technology Novell is "protecting" with this covenant is Linux (which Novell doesn't own).

To me, this is all about the serious mistake that Novell just made and the backlash they're going to feel. Thousands of open-source devlopers who have contributed enough code to give Novell a Network Operating System capable of competing with Windows just got told that none of that matters, but thanks, and now Novell is safe.

Microsoft is only offering protection to Novell as a distributor of open-source software, which means that they can, if they so choose, begin arraying lawsuits against various and sundry linux distributors. I think that if you look around, you can find in the neighborhood of 400 diffrent distributions, large and small ( gave me 431, including unmaintained projects).

That's a lot of lawsuits, not that I don't think Microsoft's legal department is up to the task. The largest single commercial software maker in the world has ample lawyers.

So, let's imagine a world in which pretty much every linux distributor is facing a lawsuit, or several lawsuits, over patent claims and s faced with having to stop distributing. That's bad...really bad.

I admit that thinking about that makes me a bit ill, and I'm not at all happy with Novell or Microsoft at the moment.

Thinking about that, though, got me thinking about how the players in this little saga are currently reacting, are likely to react in the near future, and how they will likely react to those reactions.

Microsoft, for its part, is probably rubbing its proverbial hands with glee. They now have leverage to use to try to squash Linux (aside from what Novell puts out).

Novell is feeling good, listening to all the right people tell them that they made a good move and thinking that they now have a serious edge in the world of Linux.

Open Source and Free Software developers are swearing silently between clenched jaws and trying to understand how Novell could have done something so monumentally horrible.

That's current reactions, so now we head to the near future. The FLOSS community has put countless hours of work into a huge volume of software that runs on everything from umstick-sized single-purpose computers to massive compute clusters to standard desktop PCs. As someone who has written software before, I can say with a fair bit of certainty that I'd be less than pleased to hear that the code that *I* helped create could now only be distributed by a single company, and that 99.9% of the people I had hoped would be able to likewise contribute to it would not be allowed to help out the way I had from now on. There are a bunch of pissed-off developers out there right now, and they like to work together.

Novell, while basking in the glow of its recent foolishness, will start to realize slowly that if the FLOSS community can't write code under the terms they decided to write it under, they probably won't continue to do it, at least not most of them, or at least not in the manner they have used up until November 2nd. With no developers to improve, create, extend, and innovate Linux and GNU software, Novell will have to do all of its own work (a point I'm sure the FLOSS community will make abundantly clear). So, soon, Novell will have to realize that unless it's ready to compete on its own, head-to-head, against Microsoft, it's not going to be a rosy future.

Microsoft, noticing that Novell is turning a bit green around the gills, will probably seize upon it's easy-out clause in the license agreement and sue Novell (hey, they must have thought there were patent problems in Linux, or they wouldn't have signed the agreement, right). The achilles heel that Microsoft keeps getting cut by is antitust issues, and while suing a single distributor might not raise immediate alarm bells, doing so against Linux distributors en masse would probably be enough to get the DOJ involved.

Just ideas of what *might* happen, mind you. I'm ever the optimist, and often hat means I'm blindsided by the dirty tricks that get played, but I don't think Novell or Microsoft truly realize the magnitude of what has just happened, or how bad it can be to have a collectively brilliant, determined, and meticulous foe actively engaged in derailing your efforts. The FLOSS community is that and more, and I have the feeling that it will soon be apparent that these two old-line software companies have just bitten off more than they can chew.

hope this cloud has a silver lining.

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