Microsoft's Patent Talk Looms Large At Open Source Business Conference

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft's recent saber rattling over possible patent litigation vs. open source players has cast a pall over the OSBC gathering.

Microsoft's stance, as publicized in its general counsel's statements in Fortune Magazine, was characterized as more "fear, uncertainty and doubt" or FUD by Matt Asay, CEO of Alfresco, who kicked off the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Asay listed the biggest threats to the open source business in order of noisiness as patent FUD, possible forks to the code, and consolidation. The last, consolidation, he said is the least spoken about but probably the biggest threat to open source.

"Proprietary ecosystems are designed to give value but also to keep competitors out. Once you build on that ecosystem, you're locked in, in both benevolent and not-so-benevolent ways," Asay noted to several hundred attendees of the conference.

Sponsored post

In an interesting snapshot of the market dynamics, Microsoft hosted its Microsoft Open Source ISV Forum in the same venue on Monday. That event is geared towards persuading open source-oriented ISVs to link their wares into the Microsoft stack as well as open source foundations.

Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik picked up the thread in his subsequent remarks.

"In my almost 20 years in open source software, [vendors] have always been respectful of intellectual property. This is not a renegade mentality," he said.

"Patents are a relatively new idea in the software industry. I'd argue the focus should be on innovation, not patents."

Some of this crowd, known for varying degrees of hostility towards Microsoft, finds it infuriating that Microsoft, for all its talk about software innovation, appears again to be leaning towards litigation to secure its power base. One attendee pointed to the company's nudging of U.S. antitrust authorities to look into Google's acquisition of DoubleClick as the "height of chutzpah," given that Microsoft itself has been adjudged to be a monopoly.

One former Red Hat employee said Red Hat itself is very worried about Microsoft's statements, given Microsoft's existing, and highly controversial, agreement with Novell.

"The open source community is very large and amorphous. So, Microsoft will have to focus its attention on specific companies, projects and/or individuals. So, it would be useful for companies who think they are at risk of being in the cross hairs [of a suit] to discover and compare intellectual property portfolios. The best solution... having something in your portfolio to negotiate a "cross licensing" agreement with," he noted.

Where rubber hits the road, however, at least one open-source-oriented VAR says customers aren't even asking about the patent issue, which he feels will never come to much beyond FUD.

"Microsoft and the open source guys know if they go down this [patent litigation] path, it will be mutually assured destruction. No one will win. This stuff is too entrenched and customers will not stand for it," said Tony Awtrey, vice president of integration services for Ideal Associates, an Orlando-based solution provider.

For his part, Szulik said Microsoft's recent actions only show it's feeling the open source pain. Quoting Mohandas Gandhi, Szulik said "First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win."