A couple of weeks ago Microsoft and Novell signed a patent cross-licencing deal that would indemnify Novell customers against patent lawsuits. Ars Technica speculates that the deal is really just about provinding virtualization support for their customers who also use Linux for some purposes and that it’s not clear that it’s quite detrimental to Linux or to open-source software in general – but let’s pretend, for the time being, that MS has got something nasty up its sleeve. I’ve read a little about this on news sites and poked around the Slashdot forum; here’s what I’ve gleaned and what I think this is about.
Earlier this week Steve Ballmer said that Linux infringed on MS’ intellectual property. How, he did not say, leading me to think that this is mainly chest-thumpin, just some good ol’ FUD. MS filing suit against Linux users or distributors would be heavy-handed and attract the attention of both IBM and government regulators (not to mention invite intense scrutiny of Microsoft’s own patent portfolio and past IP infringements on their part). So what would Ballmer do in this situation? Perhaps, find a way to undermine Linux while taking precautions to make it look like they’re going out of their way to help customers who also want to use Linux. It does not give Linux the credibility that MS would not want when coupled with statements of the type that Ballmer just made, in that although MS is essentially acknowledging Linux as a viable competitor, it implies that a licence is needed because of possible IP issues. In other words, it’s fine to use Linux provided that it happens under a licence they approve of. This is one way to compromise the perception of Linux as an alternative to Windows in the minds of many IT managers and CTOs.
Viewed in this light, MS may simply acknowledge that Linux is not going away and will now try to kep it on the server – and so doing, keep their dominance on the desktop and in corporate environments. So the new strategy may be to control how customers perceive they can use Linux.
Let’s take this one step further. If you were giant software company frightened to death (pretending, remember) of a competing product that was not backed by a single company, given away for free, and is in many ways better than your product, what strategy would you pursue to try to siphon market share away from this competing product? You can’t just steamroll over it like you used to with many other competitors in the 80s and 90s. You can’t start infringement suits willy-nilly because you’d get hit right back. You could try to compete on the open market, but, realistically, this is difficult to make work against a competitor that has more programmers than you to call upon, many willing to work on a voluntary basis, and against a competitor that can respond to such challenges on the turn of a dime (which, after all, is one of the major benefits of OSS). A much more attractive option is to get a foothold in the development process such that you can directly (not just through FUD) control what it does and how it can be used. By signing with a major Linux provider, you gain influence regarding what type of functionality goes into subsequent development on GNU/Linux systems. If Linux developers do not take kindly to the deal, the result is fragmentation of the Linux space – that is, forking the project. A fragmented Linux is, of course, less able to compete because developers will be drawn to one or the other Linux kernel stream. If MS were to sign deals with other providers – which seems unlikely, given the backlash to this deal – it would further exacerbate the fragmentation problem.
So the Microsoft strategy may be to divide and conquer. They may even try to include proprietary components in the licenced Novell version of Linux (don’t know how, but maybe their lawyers will figure something out). If the kernel is forked, and no other Linux distributor accedes to MS’ overtures to licence ‘their’ IP in Linux, Novell will likely wither without the resources of the open source community at large to draw upon. If Novell remains successful, however, it will pressure other vendors to sign licencing deals with MS, which will further fragment the market and could lead to more forking. This accomplishes two things for MS: first, it will prevent Linux from growing market share on the desktop, because most commonly used desktops distros are nonprofit and are unlikely to obtain licencing deals from MS, which protects MS’ monopoly there; second, it weakens the ability of the community at large to compete, which will allow MS to slowly pick off Linux vendors. This is a long term project for MS; there’s no way for them to defeat quickly, so they will now pursue a strategy of slowly squeezing Linux vendors and gradually weakening the entire project.
Divide and conquer. This is Microsoft’s strategy for dealing with Linux.