How Far Is Microsoft Willing To Go?


If you can't beat them, sue them. Linux has finally awakened the sleeping giant: Microsoft's legal department.

Microsoft claims that the open-source movement, powered mostly by Linux, infringes on some 235 of its patents, and the company is taking action.

FRANK J. OHLHORST
Can be reached via e-mail at fohlhorst@cmp.com.

Microsoft states that it is only interested in developing more licensing agreements, similar to what it has already done with Novell.

The part that Microsoft is forgetting to mention is that most open-source organizations do not have Novell's financial wherewithal and that those organizations may be hard-pressed to pay for licensing agreements. Dare I say that I believe Microsoft's real intention is to completely crush the open-source competition?

Just the threat of litigation could force many open-source developers to simply abandon development efforts. Another interesting consideration here is that Microsoft's action may well unglue the Novell-Microsoft agreement. After all, Novell has a very different take on the situation.

An entry on Novell's Open PR blog posted May 14 reiterates that the company still stands behind Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian's statement from a November open letter: "We disagree with the recent statements made by Microsoft on the topic of Linux and patents," the blog stated. "Importantly, our agreement with Microsoft is in no way an acknowledgment that Linux infringes upon any Microsoft intellectual property."

Now, what does all of this mean to the channel? First off, the situation finally shows that Microsoft is threatened by the open-source community and will take whatever action necessary to protect its market share. That in itself lends legitimacy to the open-source movement. Simply put, if Microsoft could beat open source on cost, features and quality, then there would be no need to resort to ambiguous legal tactics.

On the other hand, while legal action may take years to garner any results, Microsoft's patent infringement claims have in a single day created fear, uncertainty and doubt around the whole open-source market. Arguably, Microsoft's goal all along has been to make people think twice about open source. When all else fails, unleash the lawyers.

This situation is nothing new. Remember the Lotus "look-and-feel" lawsuits, the Apple "user interface" lawsuits and, more recently, the lawsuit against Research In Motion over wireless e-mail? Litigation over software is here to stay. But there is one big difference in this case: Open source is not an individual company, but a community of many developers. And that raises the questions of who exactly will Microsoft sue if no one will pay licensing fees and how far Microsoft will be willing to go to press its claims.

Are you seeing any open-source fear, uncertainty and doubt? You can reach Frank J. Ohlhorst, director of the CRN Test Center, at fohlhorst@cmp.com.