Microsoft, Former 'Lindows' Vendor Reach New Covenant

The company which at one time blatantly attacked Microsoft's position on the consumer desktop with what was then called "Lindows," a Linux distro aimed at low-price systems sold in major department stores, announced today a 180-degree change of tack.

Adding its name to those of Novell and Xandros, Linspire becomes the third Linux distributor to reach a patent covenant agreement with Microsoft. In finding the courage to shake hands with the enemy, Linspire's president and CEO this morning publicly compared himself to Steve Jobs.

"Just as Steve Jobs announced in 1997 that 'the era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over,' I too believe it's time for Linux to do the same," Kevin Carmony stated in an open letter to his company's customers. "Rather than isolating Linux, I believe we need to understand, as Apple did in 1997, that Linux exists in an ecosystem and must work with and interoperate within that ecosystem. As unpopular as it may appear to some, Linspire is willing to take a lead in this effort. Some people booed Steve Jobs back in 1997, but if you trace the history of his announcement, I think it was an incredibly smart move for both Microsoft and Apple, issuing in a new era for both."

As part of the deal, Microsoft announced this morning, Linspire will join the document format translation party launched along with Novell last year. Linspire will also be licensing Windows Media audio and video codecs, along with some of its TrueType fonts (which may be critical in establishing similarity of appearance across document formats), and will choose Windows Live Search as its default online search engine for its pre-installed software. Presumably, this may include its Web browser, which at last check was based on the Mozilla platform.

Microsoft did acknowledge the formation of a covenant similar to the one struck last year with Novell. "Through the agreement, Microsoft and Linspire have developed a framework to provide patent covenants for Linspire customers," reads Microsoft's statement this morning. "The patent covenants provide customers with confidence that the Linspire technologies they use come with rights to relevant Microsoft patents."

But in a situation that may be peculiar to Linspire and perhaps not any other company in the world, a possible legal quandary may emerge with regard to how far that covenant extends to the users of software that Linspire just happens to redistribute. Since 2005, Linspire has operated a service called CNR ("Click 'n' Run"), which is a one-stop shop for consumer applications that run on Linux platforms.

Last January, Linspire expanded CNR to enable customers to download other versions of Linux, including not just Freespire (Linspire's other distro) but Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and Ubuntu. Users of CNR register for an online account, which could lead to one legal interpretation that account holders are Linspire customers even if they download other Linux distros through that site.

While it's unlikely that a patent covenant between Linspire and Microsoft could possibly or legally extend to other vendors, the pre-existing murkiness that already exists with regard to the definition of "Linux customer" may have just gotten murkier, especially if the terms of the new agreement neglect to make a distinction.

As recently as last week, journalists covering the Linux space discovered that something was up. OSWeekly.com columnist Matt Hartley - who called CNR "the most brain-numbingly simple way to install anything on any operating system" - peeked into some of CNR's client-side source code, and found an XML call to what he believes is the next version of CNR's applications server. An expansion of that server's capabilities is necessary, Hartley believes, in order to enable the equally brain-numbingly simple installation of such necessary accessory files as codecs and fonts.

This may explain Microsoft's focus on codecs and fonts in its announcement this morning. Conceivably, Linspire may have been compelled to forge this new covenant with Microsoft in order to avoid a legal challenge, which would put the company right back in an uncomfortable, all-too-familiar position.

Further evidence comes from CEO Carmony's letter, which attempts to pre-empt the anticipated disapproval of the crowd with an extended allocution. In his own words, he states he was the one who initiated the first meeting with Microsoft a year and a half ago, prior to the Novell agreement, "to discuss how we could work together to make a 'better' Linux. I was confident Microsoft would welcome my invitation, because I knew there could be an economic incentive for them to do so."

Transforming his letter into a sort of FAQ for the disenchanted, he asks himself, "But why would Microsoft want to help offer a better Linux experience?" To which he responds, "For the same reason they sell Microsoft Office and other software to Mac users...it's a worthwhile market for their wares."

That statement raises new questions as to the extent to which Debian, Ubuntu, and others may soon find themselves sharing virtual shelf space with Microsoft, in the next version of Linspire's application server for Linux customers.

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