Making sense of Microsoft's open source fetish

Microsoft is nothing if not consistent. The company - despite its feints and dodges with the Linux Lab and what-not - has been highly focused on feeding its anti-open source fetish. Today, that fetish reared its ugly head again. I've been waiting for some time for this Fortune article to hit (I was interviewed as part of Roger's due diligence). Roger Parloff does a good job of wading through the muck and getting

Microsoft is nothing if not consistent. The company - despite its feints and dodges with the Linux Lab and what-not - has been highly focused on feeding its anti-open source fetish.

Today, that fetish reared its ugly head again. I've been waiting for some time for this Fortune article to hit (I was interviewed as part of Roger's due diligence). Roger Parloff does a good job of wading through the muck and getting to the heart of Microsoft's derision for all things open source.

Microsoft must be scared to death by open source.

Whatever Bill Hilf and his team may say (including staging an "open source kumbayah" event at the Open Source Business Conference), it is painfully clear that Microsoft is so dysfunctional when it comes to open source that it is determined to gnaw off the hand that could feed it for the next decade. Microsoft talks about welcoming in the open source ecosystem to its Windows ecosystem while simultaneously slandering the movement.

What is fascinating in Microsoft's bold (and specious) claim that various open source software violates "235" of its patents is the justification that Microsoft puts forward. It tries hard to plead the fairness of it all ("We just want to get paid for all this value we've created, just like everyone else does - buddy, can you spare a royalty dime?"), but appears to be aiming its patent portfolio almost exclusively at open source. The article notes cross-licensing deals with SAP, Sun, and others, but Microsoft is trying to bring its biggest patent guns against open source...its vendors and its customers:

Smith was not to be deterred. Since the GPL covered only distributors of Linux, nothing stopped Smith from seeking royalties directly from end users - many of which are Fortune 500 companies. He would have to proceed carefully, however, because most of those users were also major Microsoft customers.

"It was a conversation that one needed to have in a thoughtful way," says Smith, with obvious understatement. In 2004, Microsoft began having those conversations, and Smith claims they were cordial. "Companies are very sensitive to the importance of protecting intellectual property," he says, "because ultimately they know that their own businesses similarly turn on [such] protection."

Some customers actually entered into direct patent licenses with Microsoft at that point, Smith says, including some "major brand-name companies" in financial services, health care, insurance and information technology.

Well, of course it would be those big enough to afford to buy their way out of the nuisance.

And that, unfortunately, is all that this big Microsoft patent mess is: a nuisance. I am aching for Microsoft to sue someone. I'd love for it to be me. (I just wish I could write some software so that one of its soon-to-be-invalidated patents could be turned against me.) As I've written, Microsoft can't afford to actually sue someone. It just has to hope that threats will scare enough weak-kneed vendors into capitulation that it will never have to launch a lawsuit.

Because here's what happens the day Microsoft sues Red Hat, Ford Motor Company, or whomever:

  1. If Microsoft sues a customer, it will see its market share start to erode. Immediately. In every product category. I find it hard to imagine that anyone will buy from a bully if they have any choice in the matter. People tend to like Microsoft products; they tend to despise the company's strong-armed business tactics. Enough of the latter and the former will peter out.
  2. IBM, Oracle, OIN, and others will file counter lawsuits to protect their interests in open source. Bill Hilf said it best: there are a lot of commercial interests tied up in open source. The day that Microsoft wages a war against open source, it will find that it's up against the entire industry. That industry includes Sun, IBM, and Oracle, all of which have major stakes in the outcome, with patent portfolios that make Microsoft's look puny.

    (Ironically, much as I dislike Oracle's Unbreakable Linux strategy, I kind of like the thought of Larry Ellison mixing it up with Ballmer. Ellison is not going to see his applications and database businesses held hostage by Microsoft. In fact, arguably Unbreakable Linux is all about breaking Microsoft's stranglehold.)

  3. Microsoft's patents - many of them, anyway - will likely be held to be invalid. The Supreme Court recently handed down two judgments that will go a long way toward diminishing Microsoft's patent threat. At least, when it finally gets around to launching it in earnest. I would like nothing more than to see a large majority of its patents go down in flames.

So bring it on, Microsoft. I actually respect intellectual property and don't believe it is right/ethical/just to misuse someone else's copyrights or patents. But the way that Microsoft is trying to shore up its business model is shameful and shows just how vulnerable it really is.

Unfortunately, all of this is likely for naught, since Microsoft has been banging its one patent note over and over for years, without doing anything.

Of course, the funniest thing in all this is the alleged violation of the "garbage in, garbage out" rule. Microsoft, whose software is notoriously buggy, believes that the open soure community has somehow stolen that buggy code...and made much less buggy products out of it:

The Redmond behemoth asserts that one reason free software is of such high quality is that it violates more than 200 of Microsoft's patents. And as a mature company facing unfavorable market trends and fearsome competitors like Google, Microsoft is pulling no punches: It wants royalties. If the company gets its way, free software won't be free anymore.

If at all true, Microsoft should be begging the open source community to teach it how to spin gold from Microsoft's straw, rather than castigating it for alleged theft. Microsoft knows how to put a pretty face on a pig, but it has yet to figure out how to fix the pig.

In the end, this is all about trying to force the industry to stick with Microsoft's outdated business model. Microsoft will fail as more and more corporations choose to give their software away, patents or no patents. The best it can hope for, as suggested above and as Mark Shuttleworth has stated, is to try to impose a tax that makes open source software "not so free."

It really is too bad that a company with tens of thousands of intelligent people has such a hard time evolving. I guess Darwin skipped his visit to Redmond.

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