Microsoft-Novell Deal: Has It Divided The Linux Community?

Initially announced on news conference Nov. 2, the deal called for Microsoft, long seen as an enemy by many Linux advocates, to start working hand-in-hand with Novell, producer of the SuSE Linux operating system, in areas that included licensing, support, and joint research and development around Windows/Linux interoperability.

Also under the agreement, the two software makers inked a software patents covenant stating that Microsoft won't be able to sue Novell's customers for any potential infringements of Microsoft's patents, and Novell won't be able to sue Microsoft's customers for potential infringements on Microsoft's patents.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars will change hands between Microsoft and Novell over the next three years for software licensing and patent protection, with a net balance of $118 million going to Novell.

The deal does have supporters among industry analysts, ISVs, and VARs, who foresee benefits to Novell and to the advance of Linux in the enterprise. "Novell needs to look at its opportunity to gain Linux customers from highly Microsoft-loyal accounts. And when you consider the money, there'll be a lot of it going into Novell's coffers," says Raven Zachary, an analyst with The 451 Group.

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Recognition by Microsoft lends more credibility to Novell as a second major Linux distributor (behind industry leader Red Hat Software), according to Adam Braunstein, an analyst at the Robert Frances Group. "No enterprise customer wants to get locked into a single distribution," Braunstein says.

The Linux Community Reacts
But what about the developers who create the actual Linux code and who form the heart of what's known as the open source community? How will they be affected? As the calendar turns the corner into 2007, is this community of ISV and corporate developers, already split into hundreds of different distributions, only becoming more divided? Or conversely, is this community growing even more unified through joint opposition to the deal?

So far, the answer seems to be yes on both counts. By and large, Linux developers see the deal as an unwelcome intrusion by Microsoft, a huge and unabashedly proprietary vendor, into the open source world, where software development is highly collaborative, a lot of code is available free of charge, and vendor business models are frequently based more on service contracts than on software licensing.

Linux organizations that sounded disapproval for the Microsoft/Novell plan range from Red Hat to smaller Linux distributors such as Linspire and Mandriva, and open source projects such as Samba, a group that includes even some Novell employees.

"I obviously can't speak for the entire community, but I see more banding together [against Microsoft] than divisiveness," said Nicholas Petreley, a professional open source consultant, author, and editor, and the creator of

But beyond shared distaste for Microsoft's perceived intrusion, reactions within the Linux community vary, from a cautious watchfulness to a conviction that the deal represents an intentional ploy by Microsoft to destroy the open source movement by pitting one Linux distributor — namely, Novell — against the rest of the Linux community. "[It] is clearly true [that] the agreement sets SuSE apart from the rest of the crowd. The Microsoft message here is clear. 'I can pick and choose among the players and bribe whomever I want,' " contends Francois Banchilhon, CEO of the French-based Mandriva. Going Against The GPL?
Others are angry that, in looking out for its own best interests, Novell appears to be ignoring the rest of the Linux community. In one major bone of contention, some have taken Novell to task for going against the grain of the GNU General Public License (GPL), which describes how open source software may be used.

Immediately after the Novell/Microsoft announcement in November, the Samba Project shot off an open letter to the Linux community, drubbing Novell for displaying a "profound disregard for [the relationship they have] with the Free Software community." Then, in late December, Jeremy Allison, a member of Samba, quit his position as a high-level programmer at Novell in protest of the deal. (Allison took a job with Google.)

"As many of you will guess, this is due to the Microsoft/Novell agreement, which I believe is a mistake and will be damaging to Novell in the future. But my main issue with this deal is I believe that even if does not violate the letter of the licence [sic] it violates the intent of the GPL license the Samba code is released under, which is to treat all recipients of the code equally," Allison wrote in a letter posted on the Groklaw Web site.

Some critics contend that, although Novell and Microsoft are in technical compliance with the GPL, the deal between these companies violates the underlying spirit of the document, which was designed to encourage developers and users to share software freely instead of being forced to sign restrictive proprietary licensing agreements or patents. According to members of this camp, the two companies have managed to achieve compliance by exploiting new stipulations in GPL version 2, the current version of the document, meant to prevent specific deals among developers around distribution of free software.

Yet others feel that Novell is being victimized by Microsoft. "If you see Microsoft start to bully [other] Linux vendors for [intellectual property] licensing, Novell will have a hard time recovering in the open source community," said Kevin Carmony, CEO of Linspire. In fact, some community members are convinced that the patent covenants component is a sign that Microsoft already holds intellectual property in Linux, although Novell has denied this contention.

Bad Publicity Creates Bad Feelings
Contributing in large part to the controversy are the scattershot methods used by the two companies in imparting information about the deal. According to Justin Steinman, Novell's director of Linux open platform solutions, Novell's decision to push the announcement to November was prompted by a sudden move by Oracle, a longtime partner of Red Hat, to come out with its own version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. "We said, 'Let's not let [Oracle] get the market momentum,' " he says.

Many people, ranging from competitors to some Novell partners, claim they were left in the dark about the deal until the last minute. "Red Hat was unaware of the Microsoft/Novell arrangements until just prior to the announcement," maintains Mark Webbink, Red Hat's deputy general counsel for intellectual property.

Marc Potter, director of business development for Redjuju, a Novell reseller, admits to feeling alarmed at the outset of the announcement, when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian appeared side-by-side on his PC screen. "My first thought was, 'Oh, no. Microsoft just bought Novell,' " he says. But Potter says he now favors the agreement, on the grounds that Microsoft's willingness to "step to the plate for Linux" has reassured some customers about Linux.

Another factor contributing to disagreement is that the deal stands to impact various Linux distributions quite differently. Some analysts have predicted that Novell's partnership with Microsoft, and other recent industry deals, will spell increased consolidation in the Linux ranks. According to Zachary, Linux distributions most likely to survive the cut include Novell, Red Hat, Debian, and a Debian-based distribution from Canonical known as Ubuntu.

Linux Advocates Act
Some members of the open source community have decided to do more than watch and wait. Bruce Perens, primary author of the GNU contract, has organized a petition urging Novell to recant the patent protection portion of the deal with Microsoft.

Other developers have tried to hit Novell in the wallet. "The community feels that the only way to react properly to this deal is to boycott Novell, or at least some of Novell's products," Petreley explains. On Nov. 3, developer Rich Morgan posted a letter accusing Novell of violating the GPL and calling for a boycott of Novell on his company's Open Addict Web site.

Morgan later posted a response to the boycott letter from John Dragoon, Novell's senior VP and chief marketing officer. According to Morgan's blog, Dragoon wrote, "As to your belief that we have violated the GPL, we disagree. We have made no admission of patent violation within Linux and would take no action that knowingly prevented us from selling and supporting SUSE Linux. We have been a long time supporter of the Open Source community and its many efforts to create and distribute world class Open Source software. We remain committed to that goal."

In response, Morgan noted on the site, "In all fairness, the guys from Novell have been taking our criticisms seriously and I'll give them that. However, this deal has had serious negative effects on the community. There are still many unanswered questions which are not likely to be answered any time soon because of NDAs Microsoft implemented surrounding the deal."

Morgan eventually retracted his charges about GPL violations, citing the loophole in version 2. "It doesn't violate version 2 of the GPL, true, and I've conceded that point," Morgan wrote. "However, the loophole they used will certainly be closed in version 3 of the GPL. So, for now, they're in shaky compliance with the GPL." The boycott is still on.

Of course, the success of any boycott attempt depends upon how much support can be generated among those who actually buy a company's products. It would take a considerable number of influential boycotters for Novell to spurn a multimillion-dollar deal with Microsoft.

In fact, if the Perens petition and Novell boycott effort prove anything at all, it's that despite any individual differences of opinion that might exist, independent Linux developers can still get heard when they unite behind a common goal — even if they don't necessarily obtain everything they want.