The Morning After
By webmink on Nov 02, 2006
Novell and Microsoft. Well, well. I'm sure in a few days some folk will wake up in Utah wondering what happened to them. The word on the street is that Novell had some deep patent dirt on Microsoft and went proudly to demand their bounty. Negotiations proceeded over several months, and the result (hurriedly rescheduled to respond to Oracle) was today's shindig in San Francisco.
So how was it that at the end of the day they ended up affirming software patents (something Microsoft wants and Free software people hate), set a precedent that open source distributors owe Microsoft money, slandered GNU/Linux as derivative and encumbered, and much more? Novell is now safe in the shade of a patent exchange and gets to talk about interoperability, a few private developers have a protection they hadn't been worrying about much and everyone else is left wondering if this means they are next for the visit from the Redmond enforcement department (AKA "BSA"). What happened? Drugs in the soda?
I'm not alone wondering. Pamela's summary is Novell sold out (and points out that much of the OSDL board was in attendance either physically or in the press release to witness the event). Eben Moglen even says it may be unlawful. I'm not up to those sorts of judgments. I just think it's remarkable.
It's a remarkable reversal of opportunity, all the more remarkable that the Novell participants smiled the whole way through what had clearly become a Microsoft event. They went in seeking a huge payout, and emerged with the payout, yes - but also with a commitment to pay it back in royalties on open source software they sell. This is not at all surprising; indeed, I've heard others say this is Microsoft's modus operandi, a ju-jitsu move that takes the weight of an attack and turns it back both on the attacker and the folks around them, usually without them even noticing (at least not to start with). I'd not want to say how closely I've observed it before...
There are some winners. The folks working on Mono have a shelter from attack at last (at least as long as they work for Novell or are unemployed - anyone else is still twisting in the wind). Likewise Novell's staff working on things like GNOME and Samba. Novell and Microsoft customers get cute indemnity vouchers they can trade for calls to the help desk. Unemployed developers can be sure Microsoft won't sue them. And the optics of the thing are as good as they could be made given they only had a week's notice to turn months of negotiation into an event. But I'm not a fan of a worldview that says for one to win, everyone else must lose.
Still, it will be tough for anyone to deny that operating systems still matter. It also points out the big problem lots of vendors have, where they need to choose between protecting the open source community, while exposing customers to IP risk; or isolating customers via proprietary software or IP arrangements, while cutting off the open source community. I've no idea whose business is going to be impacted next but we've seen two huge changes in the last week or so that shout out the problem, and all those companies that had a Damascene conversion to open source in 2000 are showing their true colours. To think Hovsepian once preached about "true open source" as well.
From now on you know if you become a Novell customer you risk litigation from Microsoft if you ever try to choose a different supplier - Steve Ballmer said as much in the Q & A. That's the most extreme lock-in I have seen in ages. At least you can be sure with OpenSolaris and with the Java platform that your freedom to leave is preserved, so it's safe to stay. Maybe it was worth us having that laser focus on where the code came from after all? My plan is to make things better for everyone, not just for Sun. Watch this space.