Comment Microsoft has lost its guts. Maybe they're on the floor of Bill Gates's "think week" cabin.
Chairman Gates owned a steel sack once upon a time. You all remember the missive deriding computer hobbyists as software stealing criminals. "I would appreciate letters from any one who wants to pay up, or has a suggestion or comment," Gates wrote in 1976. "Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software."
It would seem that Microsoft now relies on the likes of Fortune to perform scoldings. The software maker, as you've no doubt heard, placed a terse article with the publication. In the piece, both Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and top lawyer Brad Smith go after the free/open source crowd, saying 235 Redmond patents have been violated - 42 of them in the Linux kernel, 65 in the GUI (graphical user interface), 45 in OpenOffice, 15 in e-mail and another 68 scattered across various other packages.
You have to read all the way to the end of the Fortune story to grasp the full feebleness of Microsoft's grousing.
Reporter Roger Parloff asks, "If push comes to shove, would Microsoft sue its customers for royalties, the way the record industry has?"
"That's not a bridge we've crossed," replies Ballmer, "and not a bridge I want to cross today on the phone with you."
With this unbelievable, weak reply, Ballmer chose to threaten many of Microsoft's largest customers with the possibility of legal action, if they've picked up Linux, as most of Microsoft's largest customers have. In so doing, the CEO replaced Gates's straight-forward feistiness of yesteryear with a vacuous grimace delivered via the vehicle of a business publication.
Microsoft has such little respect for its customers these days that it won't even yell at you to your face - a task for which Baller is uniquely suited.
Let's be clear here. Microsoft has no intention of suing its customers. It's already tortured users enough with product delays and under achievement. Only pure insanity would drive Microsoft to mimic the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) by clogging US courts with lawsuits. We don't think Microsoft is insane.
Time wasted not hunting Google
The actual meat behind Microsoft's Fortune play seems thinner than a well-beaten carpaccio.
As we read it, Microsoft wanted nothing more than to remind Red Hat that it will need to go ahead and strike a deal like Novell. Microsoft sees the free software types maneuvering the GPL to undercut its voucher/no lawsuits against users agreement with Novell. The software maker also, no doubt, noticed Dell behaving badly by agreeing to support Ubuntu on computers. And, of course, Microsoft sees the same trends as the rest of us in the middleware game where open source has really taken off in recent months. Red Hat could enjoy the most revenue from this trend thanks to its new Exchange program.
Microsoft cannot have anything more than a Red Hat jab in mind with the Fortune statements for a few simple reasons.
For one, there's SCO. We all know how well SCO's
patent attack on IBM and Linux has played out. Would SCO Light be more threatening? (Certainly not, especially with the US government deciding to take a closer look at patents.)
Microsoft will need to reveal the specific patents in question before anyone begins to weigh the 235 figure with any seriousness.
And then there's the general ugliness of going after software such as OpenOffice. Microsoft, for example, signed a patent cross-licensing deal with OpenOffice shepherd Sun Microsystems in 2004. That deal covered "products and technologies" made by Sun. Microsoft could argue that OpenOffice is a "community" and not a product, but we're getting into serious hair-splitting. Beyond OpenOffice, Sun has contributed loads of code that has made its way into Linux - one EU estimate has Sun fronting close to 25 per cent of the work that goes into Debian.
Despite Sun and Microsoft's pleasant, recent relations, Sun does not appear pleased with Microsoft's legal grumblings.
"Fighting free software is like fighting gravity - that's why the Open Document Format (ODF) is being embraced beyond Sun, by Google, IBM, as well as governments and academic institutions across the globe," Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz told us today. "In an open market, innovation seems like a more sensible strategy than litigation."
In addition, we find Microsoft cuddling up quite closely to Linux these days. The Novell pact makes Microsoft a Linux vendor of sorts. So too does Microsoft's agreement to support Linux running on its Virtual Server software and related deal with open source software maker XenSource.
Pointing out these bits and pieces, however, misses the most obvious problem Microsoft faces. Close partners such as IBM and HP - companies with more than ample patent portfolios - would not sit idly by as Microsoft tried to derail their lucrative Linux server businesses.
To hear Ballmer warning the open sourcers that they must "play by the same rules as the rest of the business. What's fair is fair" is the obvious reminder that Microsoft does not take this latest Linux cancer kerfuffle seriously. Convicted monopolists struggling to deal with their billions can't say such things with a straight face. Microsoft just wanted to send a note to Red Hat and thought Fortune an effective medium. ®
For the record, we asked Sun, Microsoft, Dell and Red Hat for comment on this story.
Microsoft proved trickier. We asked specifically how its deal with Sun would affect the OpenOffice legal challenge. Via its public relations forcefield, Microsoft replied, "Even the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, noted last year that Linux infringes well over 200 patents from multiple companies. The real question is not whether there exist substantial patent infringement issues, but what to do about them. Microsoft and Novell already developed a solution that meets the needs of customers, furthers interoperability, and advances the interests of the industry as a whole. Any customer that is concerned about Linux IP issues needs only to obtain their open source subscriptions from Novell."
You'll notice that "Sun Microsystems" and "OpenOffice" were absent from that comment.
Dell declined to comment, while Red Hat pointed us here.