On Patents, Promises and ‘Ugly’ Patches

It was once written that promises are most given when the least is said.

Lately, however, a great deal has been said about Redmond’s latest round of promises.

For those who haven’t been following the story, it all began when Microsoft’s Peter Galli announced last week that his company had applied its “Community Promise” to the C# and CLI programming languages.

‘Overflowing With Joy’

The reassurance came in response to a request from Miguel de Icaza, founder of the Gnome and Mono projects, for Microsoft to “clarify the licensing situation for the ECMA standards covering C# and the CLI,” as de Icaza explained on his blog.

That the promise did not include the non-ECMA portions of Mono didn’t appear to trouble de Icaza, who was still jubilant with the result.

“I am overflowing with joy right now,” he proclaimed after the announcement.

The same could not be said, however, for many Linux bloggers.

‘A Classic Trojan Horse’

“If you honestly think this will lead to cross-platform development, then you need your head checked,” wrote Josh in the comments on TuxRadar, for example. “Since when has Microsoft had any sincere interest in cross-platform anything?

“It looks to me like a classic Trojan horse,” Josh concluded, “and Miguel de Icaza is a tool.”

Similarly: “This Mono thing looks a bit like a Trojan horse,” agreed kt on LXer, where the topic was covered in not just one but two separate threads.

‘Corporate Weaseling’

Along similar lines: “Still no good, and still the same-o same-o legal stupidity from Microsoft,” concluded gus. “With this kind of corporate weaseling, who needs conspiracy theories?”

Some bloggers did see reason to be cheerful: “I think this is really good news for Open Source,” wrote Anonymous Penguin on TuxRadar, for example.

Nevertheless, with so much concern in the air, Linux Girl had no choice but to take to the streets of the blogosphere for more insight.

‘Evil Tendencies’

“We do not respect promises of drug dealers and pedophiles; we should not accept the promise of a habitual offender of anti-competition law to restrain its evil tendencies,” blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. “Until M$ shrinks to normal proportions in the IT markets, we should do as little business with them as possible.”

Indeed, “it is somewhat telling that Microsoft managed to do what everyone asked for rather than what everyone needed,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack agreed. “I don’t find it a coincidence that Microsoft gave a patent pledge that allowed everyone to implement their standard without giving the patent pledges needed to interoperate.

“I get the feeling that Miguel de Icaza is a rather trusting person who is honest by nature and really can’t see the crap Microsoft is pulling,” Mack told LinuxInsider. “I expect he will be sorely disappointed when Microsoft returns to form and starts playing rough.”

‘An Important Development’

On the other hand: “This is an important development,” Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, asserted. “Microsoft is not in a good position to sue over Mono anyway, and this raises the bar further.”

The basic issue is that “it is generally bad business to sue potential customers into purchasing your products, particularly if you have a monopoly in related markets,” Travers told LinuxInsider. “Any lawsuit, in order to benefit Microsoft, has to be so important that it overcomes these concerns.”

In this development, “Microsoft seems to leave open the door to further lawsuits,” Travers acknowledged. “However they have issued a powerful PR statement in doing so that they don’t intend to sue over the software. If they change course, the cost in terms of customer goodwill and trust will be far higher.”

Of course, lawsuits regarding Mono “are not entirely foreclosed,” Travers admitted. “It is quite possible that another company — perhaps which Microsoft has licensed technology for .Net from — might file suits, perhaps even with Microsoft’s encouragement. However, I don’t see action coming directly from Microsoft at this point.”

‘Thank You Sir’

Speaking of patents and lawsuits — the most stunning of which in recent memory would have to be Microsoft’s against TomTom — we would be remiss not to also mention the patch that was recently published by Samba developer Andrew Tridgell to circumvent the company’s FAT patents.

“Ah… the things the rest of the world has to do to accommodate Microsoft’s beloved legacies,” wrote dlux in the three pages of comments on Ars Technica, where the news was joyfully announced. “A hundred years from now technology historians will look back at this era and reach for a tall bottle of whiskey, trying to imagine what we were going through.”

On a more personal note: “I don’t have much to add to this discussion but to say how grateful I am for all the ways that Andrew Tridgell has made my life easier as a Linux user,” wrote pavon. “Thank you sir.”

‘I Don’t Think This Patch Is Worth It’

On the other hand: “I don’t think they can get away by that,” warned kobolds. “The safe way is move to another file system.”

The FAT patents are relevant only to those who build embedded devices, Travers pointed out. Nevertheless, “since Microsoft controls the FAT drivers for Windows, I would worry that they might start checking for filesystems written by this patch and refuse to read the filesystem,” he agreed.

“I don’t think this patch is worth it,” Travers concluded. “The filesystem is remarkably close to the operating system, and I think it would be better to ignore the patents involved than to try to work around them in this way.”

‘An Ugly Hack’

It is “very sad that we need an ugly hack simply because Microsoft got a patent on one of the ugly hacks to a file system that Microsoft borrowed from somewhere else,” Mack opined.

“The only reason we have VFAT is because early on programmers learned that MS-DOS routines were slow, and they could gain more speed by hitting the disk directly,” he explained. “The downside was that Microsoft could not change the thousands of software programs out there that expected a certain layout, so they did a backwards-compatible hack instead.”

There are three things to be learned from “this debacle,” Mack asserted:

    1. “Microsoft should never be trusted. (Got this, Mono people?)”2. “The patent system is badly broken.”3. “If ever there was a need for an ISO standard for removable read/write memory, it’s now.”

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the patent situation, however, came from Slashdot blogger Mhall119: “Microsoft will always be Microsoft, Open Source will always be Open Source,” he told LinuxInsider. “Everything else is just static.”

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