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Microsoft, Attachmate and Novell's Linuxy Ménage à Trois

By Katherine Noyes
Dec 6, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Well the Holiday Season may be officially upon us once again, but that doesn't mean all is cheery and bright in the land of Linux.

Microsoft, Attachmate and Novell's Linuxy Ménage à Trois

No, not when Microsoft has gotten as close as it has to Unix and Novell, thanks to Attachmate's Redmond-backed purchase of the openSUSE parent.

Turkey Day notwithstanding here in the U.S., there was a veritable panic in the Linux blogosphere when word got out that Microsoft's "CPTN Holdings" had a hand in the Novell deal, largely because of the 800-plus patents that were involved. For several days, it wasn't clear which patents they were.

'Not Surprised'

"I'm saddened but not surprised," wrote znmeb on PCWorld, for example. "I'm a loyal openSUSE user and have three appliances available for download in the SUSE Studio Gallery. My hope was that whoever bought Novell would invest in this technology, not buy it to kill it."

ITworld's Brian Proffitt was one of the first to offer some reassurance, but Slashdot bloggers wasted no time in picking up the topic and making it their own.

"What if Novell sold them Unix, but didn't give them the root password?" quipped TechyImmigrant, for instance.

"Microsoft would still sell it to customers," retorted theY4Kman.

'Microsoft Unix 2013 Professional Edition'

Indeed, "a Microsoft Unix 2013 Professional Edition doesn't exactly give me pleasant imagery," lamented Jugulator.

Two days later -- presumably in response to all the consternation -- Novell announced that its Unix assets would remain in its own hands. That news, however, hasn't entirely put bloggers' minds at ease -- either about Linux or about the prospects for openSUSE.

Linux Girl felt compelled to dig deeper down at Punchy Penguin.

'Microsoft Hates Unix and Linux'

"Everyone assures each other all is well with this deal; I continue to exercise my option to not trust Microsoft nor their motives," Slashdot blogger yagu told Linux Girl. "Microsoft plays coy enough but has tipped their hand too many times in the past."

In fact, "Microsoft hates Unix and Linux," yagu asserted. "And the only way Microsoft could love Unix is if they could control it. And that would require that they own it."

The deal "seems a little too close for comfort," yagu added. "Sometimes it feels like Unix is the moth that spirals ever closer to the gas lamp that is Microsoft.

"For the good of technology I hope Unix/Linux survives and thrives," yagu concluded. "In Microsoft's hands, this won't happen. Let's hope Novell's assurances hold true."

'A Swiss Cheese OS'

Blogger Robert Pogson was skeptical.

"Whether Novell is owned by M$ or just its patents, Novell is largely controlled by M$ now and patents on technology in GNU/Linux are in their hands," Pogson opined. "M$ will use the software-patent sword to punish the GNU/Linux and FLOSS communities, charging taxes like a common patent-troll."

Microsoft "does not shell out hundreds of millions of dollars for software patents without expecting a return on investment," he added.

One can only hope that "SCOTUS kicks out software patents this year and saves us," Pogson said. "Otherwise, GNU/Linux may end up a slave to M$."

That, in turn, "is not what Free Software is about," he added. "Even a complete rewrite would not save us from that problem because patents are monopolies on implementations of ideas quite different from copyright. If we chopped out all the contributions from Novell, GNU/Linux would be a Swiss Cheese OS."

Novell "just learned the hard way why having publicly traded stock can be dangerous," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack suggested. "There are a lot of parasites around who will strip a company in order to make a fast buck."

'Nice Business Model You Got There'

At the same time, "I think the truly interesting question is whether Microsoft would even be allowed to engage in any merger that resulted in them owning the competition," Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza offered.

"They were already convicted of abusing their monopoly position by the USDOJ," Espinoza pointed out. "Of course, they were subsequently pardoned by Ashcroft, which I feel is the only datum that leaves the question open rather than simply responding with a simple 'no.'

"Is Microsoft now owned by the U.S. government in the same way that the Mafia would own a business which owned them money?" he suggested. "'Nice business model you got there, kid -- be a shame if anything happened to it. By the way, we'd like you to deny immunizations to any country which doesn't provide strong patent protection to pharmaceutical companies...'"

'Tempest in a Teapot'

Indeed, "a tempest in a teapot," was the summary opinion offered by Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

"I believe the Unix copyrights are entirely irrelevant to Linux," Travers explained. "Even before Novell sunk The SCO Group's litigation efforts against IBM, the attempts by SCO to show that Linux was infringing were just shy of frivolous.

"If SCO couldn't find something that infringed, why would one think that Microsoft or other groups would be able to do so?" Travers added.

Of course, "Novell has kept this as part of their own portfolio, and for good reason: they want to keep raking in the license fees from various proprietary Unix vendors," he maintained. "That's all this is about."

However, even if Novell were to divest itself of the Unix license business, "Microsoft would be a poor partner in such a deal," Travers opined. "Giving them copyright control over both Unix and Windows would likely raise some eyebrows over at various agencies which enforce antitrust law, and quite frankly it wouldn't be worth the trouble to them."

Networking Patents

Similarly, "a non-story" was Slashdot blogger hairyfeet's summary of the topic.

"MSFT likes to throw the occasional FUD just for giggles, but a full court press would be a decade or more in litigation, endless fees -- it just isn't worth it when MSFT has Windows 7 and WinPhone to promote," he explained. "If anything, MSFT has more to worry about with Apple and Google than the Linux community right now, what with all the infighting. Just look at the fit so many are having over Ubuntu with Wayland and Unity."

The bigger story, hairyfeet suggested, "is what MSFT DID buy: the networking patents. As anyone who has been in this business for a while knows, Novell pretty much wrote the networking stack of ALL OSes with Netware. Their IP portfolio when it comes to networking was second to none, and THAT is what MSFT went after."

'A Smart Business Move'

Ultimately, then, "this is for 'second strike' capability with regards to Windows 8 and WinPhone," hairyfeet opined. "With these patents, if Nokia, Apple, RIM or any other handset maker tries to slap a lawsuit on MSFT, they can drop the banhammer by making them pay out the nose. After all how many devices today DON'T use networking in one way or another?

"It's a wired world today," hairyfeet concluded. "Having those patents is a smart business move."

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