Asian Linux Distributor Strikes Patent Covenant with Microsoft

In a deal that could lead to the creation of a unique cross-platform authentication system for heterogenous networks, Tokyo-based Linux distributor Turbolinux announced this morning, Japan time, it has reached an agreement with Microsoft for a cross-licensing of the two companies' patent portfolios.

On the surface, what Turbolinux gets out of this is the interoperability information it needs to develop a single-sign-on service, enabling users to authenticate themselves once and transfer that security authority between operating systems. That's how Microsoft is playing up the deal today, as it announces it will establish a permanent workshop at its Beijing office "to focus on testing and showcasing solutions for customers and partners," as last night's announcement put it.

But Turbolinux could have gotten that information through a simple, one-way license agreement. By making the deal two-way, Microsoft opens up the possibility for a kind of front-end portal: a way to make Windows the logon prompt for Linux.

While Turbolinux CEO Yano Koichi characterized the deal as a way to help his customers perceive Turbolinux as "the distribution that works best with their existing Microsoft investments," it's perhaps impossible not to consider the implications of Microsoft being able to leverage its joint discoveries - to which it would presumably be fully licensed - in devising a similar portal for Linspire and Novell distributions, and perhaps others.

Turbolinux had already warmed up to Microsoft by joining its Open XML - ODF translator project last July. This morning the companies said they'll expand that cooperation, and for doing so, Turbolinux will be granted the right to feature Live Search (note, not "Windows Live Search") on its users' desktops.

If you're wondering where else you might have seen Turbolinux recently, you might have encountered its trademark on a curious new MP3 player device launched last June, called the Wizpy. Although its principal purpose is as a music player, it features a complete Linux distribution for a pocket-sized computer. Using a USB cable connected to any other machine, including a Windows PC, you can boot up the Wizpy's desktop inside a separate window. There's a miniature ODF-compliant software suite in that window, and you can transfer files between the PC and the Wizpy using functions driven by the device rather than by an application on the PC's host system.

With access now to Microsoft's patents, Turbolinux could conceivably expand that connection for a future Wizpy edition, to enable drag-and-drop functionality, portability with Microsoft Outlook, and perhaps other thus far unforeseen features, expanding its already intriguing capabilities. Meanwhile, Microsoft might want to have a look at Wizpy for itself, especially for some ideas on how to build a more interesting value proposition for a third generation of Zune.

This latest deal marks the fourth patent covenant Microsoft has reached with a major Linux distributor, after former "Lindows" vendor Linspire and Outlook work-alike vendor Xandros last June, and after the precedent-setting deal with Novell last November.

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