Novell acquisition doesn't signal victory for Microsoft over Linux

Microsoft is likely walking away with valuable technologies and FUD fuel, but it still won't have control over open source

Observers around the blogosphere have been fixated not so much on the impact of Attachmate's $2.2 billion acquisition of Novell as they are on Microsoft's role in spending $450 million on 800-plus undisclosed Novell patents.

The lack of details behind the deal has generated speculation that Microsoft has managed to snag core Linux patents -- perhaps the same ones Novell proved it owned in court against SCO. With that chunk of intellectual property in its portfolio, Microsoft would have a weighty club to brandish at Linux vendors, bullying them to play nice or face lawsuits.

The reality is likely less interesting if you pause to consider what we know about the deal and the non-Linux components of Novell's technology treasure trove. It's plausible that Microsoft has indeed gained some useful patents, not to mention avoided the risk of seeing Novell fall into the hands of VMware. There's also something to be said regarding the uncertainty Microsoft has created with its new acquisitions, but the notion that Microsoft now has a hold on WMDs to win its war with Linux is less convincing.

As noted, Attachmate has put down $2.2 billion for Novell, including the Suse division. Meanwhile, a newly minted holdings company called CPTN -- a consortium of technology firms organized by Microsoft, not Microsoft itself -- has handed over $450 million in cash for hundreds of patents.

Hazy though these details may be, they already suggest that invaluable patented Linux technologies have not slipped in to Microsoft's grasp. If Novell's share of Linux patents were so valuable, would Attachmate -- which now holds a stake in Suse Linux -- part with them for $450 million? And would Microsoft purchase them as part of a consortium rather than buying them exclusively? It seems unlikely.

If Microsoft hasn't sunk its hooks in precious penguin patents, what could it possibly want from the picked remains of the Novell carcass? Well, Novell has never been all about Linux; the company has a broad portfolio of technologies covering identity, security, and systems management solutions, as well as collaboration solutions.

Microsoft may have grabbed patents related to directory servers, notes InfoWorld blogger Neil McAlister, pointing out that Novell eDirectory remains the No. 1 competitor to Active Directory. Additionally, Redmond might now be the proud owner of even more network-management technologies. "Novell was a pioneer in basic file and print stuff, and having some of that intellectual property handy could potentially make Microsoft's life easier," McAllister told me.

Microsoft may have also scooped up patents associated with Mono, the Novell-led open source runtime for deploying .Net apps on Linux, and/or Moonlight, the open source runtime for Silverlight apps.

There's yet another bit of technology that might interest Microsoft: the bits and bobs that enable compatibility between Windows Server and Suse Enterprise Linux.

Technology aside, Microsoft has made a couple of other gains thanks to Attachmate's acquisition of Novell. First, Novell might have landed in the hands of major competitor such as VMware, once deemed a likely suitor (though perhaps an unsatisfactory one).

Second, the secrecy surrounding its access to Novell's patents and, perhaps, client list, means Microsoft can wield a little FUD to lure Linux-using holdouts to the Redmond side.

This article, "Novell acquisition doesn't signal victory for Microsoft over Linux," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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