Microsoft to Promote Linux: The Details

IN DEPTH The photograph alone is monumental: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian, sharing a podium with their companies' respective logos adorning the wall behind them.

What they announced was nothing less than a redrawing of the battle lines in the operating system market. What could be a boon for enterprise system administrators may, at the same time, be a nightmare for Red Hat and IBM, the latter of which may not have felt this kind of sting since Microsoft first licensed DOS to another manufacturer.

And yet there was at least one reporter in the crowd in San Francisco this afternoon who didn't get it, and who admitted as much. Unashamedly asking the executives to please explain themselves in 45 seconds for the layperson what they had been discussing in detail for the previous 40 minutes. Ballmer rewound his tape and summarized as follows:

"Two things, I'll make it real simple: Number one, [Novell and Microsoft] are going to work together technically to help the Windows world and the Linux world interoperate. Number two, we've struck a deal under which we can provide patent agreements to Linux customers, in which Microsoft's intellectual property is respected, and we are appropriately compensated for the use of our intellectual property; and we've done both of those things in a way that we think still allows the open source development community to actively pursue what it has been doing on behalf of everybody for the last several years."

Put that way, the 45-second capsule might not top the latest round of John Kerry-bashing on that particular reporter's local radio outlet. But for those who have seen the Windows vs. Linux battle in black-and-white, what this means is nothing less a graying of the entire operating system landscape.

The Linux industry is centered around enterprise customers. There is no way the project could reasonably survive as a hobbyist or consumer-level OS, not while remaining open-source. For distributors of the Linux OS who cannot claim rights to the system in its entirety, but may actually hold some patents to concepts which were either added to it intentionally or co-opted accidentally by Linux, the principal source of revenue comes not from the sale of the system itself, but from support.

This was evidenced last week when Oracle -- ostensibly a Red Hat Linux supporter -- opened up its own competitive support channel for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, in an attempt to undercut its own partner.

The deal announced Thursday between Microsoft and Novell essentially sets aside their decades-long disputes over who owns IP rights to each other's operating system - Microsoft to concepts that were co-opted by SUSE Linux (including, possibly, the file system); Novell to networking concepts in Windows that date back to NetWare. In so doing, Microsoft now has access to a new source of revenue, sprouting from enterprise customers' need to employ virtualization - to use both operating systems on their servers, one running under management from the other.

There are any number of reasons enterprises may want to adopt a virtualized approach - one is that it opens them up to a broader realm of available software. But the other, and probably the most common one, is because businesses and divisions of businesses that merge their operations together often have huge existing investments in different operating systems. For them, virtualization would be the least expensive approach if they could be assured of not being pursued for possible patent infringement for mixing the two environments together, the way UNIX providers such as SCO Group have pursued Linux' customers of IBM and others.

As Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and senior vice president, explained on the podium about his company's and Novell's efforts, "We really had to think hard and work hard and be as creative as we could to figure out how we could build a bridge in intellectual property -- a patent bridge -- between open source and proprietary source software...I have to admit, there were times, especially when we started, where we wondered, how will we do this? And yet through an awful lot of great work, from some very bright people who figured out how to work together, we built that bridge, and that's one of the really historic things for our industry that we're able to talk about today."

Next: The arc of the patent covenant

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