The Microsoft-Novell Linux deal: Two years later

The controversial arrangement over open source and Windows still creates strong feelings, pro and con

Two years ago this month, Microsoft forged its controversial partnership with Novell that, among other things, had the two companies agreeing not to sue each other over intellectual property issues, in part to protect Suse Linux users over any patent litigation from Microsoft.

Just how well has that deal worked out? That depends on whom you talk to.

Microsoft and Novell paint nothing but a rosy picture of the arrangement. "[Customers] like the idea that Microsoft and Novell are in the same room," says Susan Hauser, Microsoft's general manager for strategic partnerships.

[ Microsoft Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Horacio Gutierrez recently discussed his views on open source and the Microsoft-Novell agreement in a wide-ranging interview with InfoWorld. ]

But a fervent opponent of the deal, responsible for the Boycott Novell Web site, sees things differently: "Novell compromised interests of the free software community for hundreds of millions of dollars that it received from Microsoft. Novell and Microsoft put their interests ahead of the free software community that makes the software everyone else uses," says Roy Schestowitz, a freelance writer and co-editor of the Boycott Novell site. The arrangement, he adds, "legitimized Microsoft's doubtful and undisclosed patent claims." Schestowitz says the Microsoft-Novell deal may have led to a chain of at least seven more patent deals covering Linux and accompanying parts, which he believes also harm Linux's self-interests.

Today, Microsoft and Novell executives talk as if there never was a controversy. But there was, and many believe Novell made too big a concession to Microsoft regarding intellectual property issues and Linux. (Under the deal, the two companies agreed not to sue each other over intellectual property issues.)

Several months after the agreement, Microsoft claimed that open source software such as Linux violated 235 of its patents. But the company has not publicly detailed what those alleged violations are. Under the agreement, Novell was released for any patent liability, so those claims don't directly affect it.

Other elements of the agreement covered bilateral virtualization between Windows Server and Suse Linux, directory interoperability, systems management, and a translator between Microsoft's Open Office XML and the Novell-backed Open Document Format file formats.

Does the deal harm Linux and open source efforts?
But critics like Schestowitz argue that the Microsoft-Novell deal, coupled with Microsoft's continued patent-infringement claims against Linux, is simply one more step to marginalize Linux or make it a mere guest in Windows-dominated datacenters. "If Novell and Microsoft get their way, then metaphorically speaking, Linux will increasingly be pressured into a corner of the datacenter, essentially being marketed as a guest machine [running under Windows] as opposed to a host running with or without Windows virtualized," he says.

Schestowitz also claims the Microsoft-Novell deal "creates revenue streams at the expense of those who build, maintain, support, and distribute free software. This not only deters developers but also makes free software a less-appealing choice based on cost. It impedes adoption of Microsoft's No. 1 competitor." In the deal, Novell agreed to pay royalties to Microsoft based on Novell's open source sales, which Schestowitz says essentially penalizes the open source contributors.

But Novell has claimed that it actually gets more money from Microsoft when all is said and done, thanks to Microsoft's agreement to purchase $240 million worth of Suse Linux support certificates from Novell for customers that have both Windows and Linux in their environments. And in August, Microsoft agreed to purchase as much as $100 million more in Linux support certificates. That money aids Novell's Linux efforts, company officials say. (Neither Microsoft nor Novell responded directly to Schestowitz's criticisms, instead simply calling them "differences of opinion.")

At the core of Schestowitz's complaint is his belief that a dominant provider of proprietary software is trying to worm its way into the open source world, with designs to hijack open source competition. "The deal enabled Microsoft to 'sell' the impression that it intended to do well with the free software community and thereby enter Linux and [free and open source software] conferences as early as the deal was signed, sheltered by Novell's presence or implicit invitation," he says. "If Microsoft wanted to cooperate with the free software community, it would start by liberating its own code and adopting patent- and royalty-free formats," he adds.

What the deal does for Novell's Suse Linux
Whatever the implications for the greater Linux and open source worlds, Novell says the Microsoft deal has been good for its Suse Linux and for IT shops that use both Suse and Windows. Customers wanted a "bridge between Microsoft Windows and Linux," says Microsoft's Hauser. Customers also wanted peace of mind over potential intellectual property disputes, since those can take products off the market or result in additional licensing fees. About 100 customers are covered by the Novell-Microsoft agreement, she notes.

"Over the last two years, we've actually expanded our technical collaboration quite a bit in areas of accessibility and [with] the Moonlight-Silverlight project and collaboration on Linux management," says Susan Heystee, general manager for global strategic alliances at Novell. "We've had great customer feedback."

One customer praised the fruits of the deal: "The Microsoft-Novell agreement is a great catalyst to helping us reduce the complexity of our Linux environment as we standardize our Linux infrastructure with Suse Linux Enterprise and continue to extend the use of Microsoft Active Directory," says Matthew O'Neill, group head of distributed systems for HSBC Global IT Operations, in a statement featured on a Microsoft-Novell Web site promoting their collaboration. "Our decision to simplify our mixed-source environment with Microsoft and Novell will allow us to reduce the cost and complexity. That's why we have selected Novell as our preferred Linux partner to support our Linux infrastructure going forward," O'Neill says.

But Boycott Novell's Schestowitz argues that the fruits of the agreement are not so benevolent and that customers have voted with their feet and avoided Novell. "Novell lost the community's trust, and their market share arguably fell relative to competitors that did not make a similar deal," he says.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.