Linux creator: Microsoft is bluffing on patents

Torvalds says Microsoft would never seriously go after patents because 'when you're a convicted monopolist, you really should not be suing your competitors over patents'

Microsoft's aggressive defense of its intellectual property, which includes claims that Linux violates a number of its patents, is nothing more than "a marketing thing," according to Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel.

"They have been sued for patents by other people, but I don't think they've -- not that I've gone through any huge amount of law cases -- but I don't think they've generally used patents as a weapon," Torvalds said. "But they're perfectly happy to use anything at all as fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the marketplace, and patents is just one thing where they say, 'Hey, isn't this convenient? We can use this as a PR force.'"

Torvalds made the comments during the second half of an interview conducted by the Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin on Oct. 16. The foundation is expected to make the rest of the interview publicly available on its Web site Monday. The foundation released the initial portion of the interview in January.

"Another reason why I don't think Microsoft really seriously would go after patents is when you're a convicted monopolist in the marketplace, you really should not be suing your competitors over patents," Torvalds continued. "I think that most Microsoft lawyers would say, 'You know, let's not do that; that sounds insane'."

Microsoft's recent work around improving its platform's interoperability with Linux  left Torvalds largely unmoved.

"I think there are people inside Microsoft who really want to improve interoperability, and I also think there are people inside Microsoft who would much rather just try to stab their competition in the back," he said. "I think the latter class of people have usually been the one[s] who won out in the end, but -- so I wouldn't exactly trust them."

Microsoft spokespeople on Friday declined to comment on Torvalds' remarks. The company has said it believes that Linux infringes on its intellectual property, although it has been criticized for not being more precise with its allegations.

Torvalds is instead focused on improving Linux, he said. "I work weekdays, I work weekends, I work 52 weeks a year. I don't want there to be any question of who's the best maintainer," he said. "And at the same time, I actually also do want to encourage competition. ... So, I actually enjoy seeing all these other kernel trees happening. All the vendors have their own."

However, the Linux kernel community overall could be more welcoming to new ideas, he suggested. "One of the problems is we have people who have such high criteria for what is acceptable or not that it scares away people who want to do new code and do new experiments," he said. "We mustn't set the bar that high. New code, new drivers, there will be problems, and I'd rather take them and then improve them."

Even as Linux matures as a technology, it has yet to make a major impact in the mainstream desktop market. "It's really hard to enter the desktop market because people are used to whatever they used before, mostly Windows ... There's just this huge inertia in that market," he said.

In contrast, he said, it was much easier to sell Linux in the context of a server: "There's just a few loads, they're fairly simple, they're fairly well-understood, people have much less inertia in upgrading a server than they have in upgrading their desktop."

At one point, the discussion turned to Sun's work to create an open source community around OpenSolaris. Torvalds expressed deep skepticism toward the effort.

"It's generally hard to build a community around a commercial entity that also wants to be in control because everybody else around that commercial entity will always feel like they're at the mercy of Sun," he said.

This dynamic is reflected in OpenOffice, "where the fact that Sun wants to have copyright assignments and exclusive control over the license ends up being something that actually drives away some developers," he argued.

Overall, Torvalds expressed ambivalence toward Sun, which recently has developed an image as a particularly open-source-friendly company. "In many ways, Sun has done a lot of things right. At the same time, they seem to often have trouble going the full last step," he said.

Ian Murdoch, vice president of Sun's Connected Developer group, defended Sun's commitment to the open source model. "An open source project has to have coordination, it's not anarchy," said Murdoch, who earlier in his career founded the Debian version of Linux.

"If you look at the Linux kernel itself, Linus is firmly in control of that, and the only difference is he's an individual and Sun is a company. ... Some of the most successful open source projects are being driven by companies like MySQL, for example," he said.

Torvalds also pulled out his crystal ball, offering predictions on how technology will change in the next five years.

While hardware will be "hugely better," software's power and complexity will grow alongside it, he said. "I suspect things will be about the same speed because the software will have grown and you'll have more 'bling' to just slow the hardware down."

Virtualization is "not that big of a deal," according to Torvalds. "It's been all around for decades, and it's very interesting in niche markets -- I think the people who expected to change things radically are just fooling themselves."

Real change will come from entirely new uses of computers, he predicted.

(James Niccolai in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.