Microsoft, Novell and Unintended Consequences

Remember when AOL thought it was doing the world’s researchers a big favor and made a boatload of online user behavior data openly available?

Remember the unintended consequences?

It became fairly easy to link up user preference data with some actual identifiable users. Users were upset, AOL looked pretty goofy, and they apologized and back-tracked.

Educating the World

The biggest consequence was that many, many more people became aware of the trove of metadata generated by their actions online. AOL did the global Web-use community a favor by educating the world on the issues of metadata use, misuse and the potential for shenanigans — or to seek protection.

Well, thanks to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent transparency on his beliefs about Linux and Windows, we have a similar unintended educational consequence in the works.

Not only was the Microsoft-Novell agreement apparently hastily acted upon with less than crystal-clear mutual understanding, but the two now “agree to disagree” on whether Microsoft’s intellectual property is being misused in Linux, be it Suse or otherwise. As a result, the world’s Linux users should now have a better appreciation for the legal perils of installing Linux.

Microsoft must think the world has been in the dark on the true cost of Linux, once the legal costs are factored, that is. Indeed, the world must be blind to these risks, given the burgeoning use and interest in Linux and other open source products. According to a recent survey at least partially backed by IBM, Linux has never been more attractive.

Nonetheless, Microsoft wants it both ways: It wants to offer fairly vague legal protection in certain cases of Linux installations (Suse), but it also wants to retain the power to act, or at least threaten to, on Linux legal misuse for other Linux distributions — for now.

The message is: You had better take Microsoft up on their offer with Suse to remove the threat of Linux legal woes. Microsoft wants you to know you’re not safe using Red Hat Linux, and they don’t want you to know just how safe you are using Suse Linux. Nice.

Microsoft seems to recognize that it can’t stop the burgeoning popularity of Linux, but it can perhaps contain it, profit from it with Novell’s assistance — for now — or both. Oh, and it also wants to retain the right to sue anyone that has anything to do with Linux (including Suse) at some later date. Nice.

So now you know.

Yet with education comes the ability to assess and therefore to maneuver based on perceptions and reality.

The burning question now before the world’s IT buyers is whether Microsoft’s power in their accounts is enough to force its own customers to do Microsoft’s bidding — or has the worm turned sufficiently that the global 2000 corporations actually possess enough IT options, business partner choices, and legal education to force Microsoft to do their bidding?

Wheeling and Dealing

Let’s look at precedent. If Microsoft is willing to make a legal deal with Novell on Linux, why shouldn’t it do the same with the global 2000 customers it sells to? Novell might be gone in a few years, but General Electric will still be around. So will Russia, China, Brazil, India and Massachusetts.

Microsoft apparently wants to play “Let’s Make a Deal” on Linux — and so should you. Here’s what I suggest large enterprises and governments do as a result of their new education on the perils of Linux:

Use your clout as a large buyer, vote with your dollar, and seek specific legal covenants protection from Microsoft so that it will not be able to sue you over your choice of Linux installations.

You may want to add in similar protection for any number of other open source products, too. You may want to insist that Microsoft enter into a GPL 3.0-like licensing deal with all the major Linux distributions. You may also seek a 10 percent price reduction for all the hassle and legal costs.

If Microsoft does not want to offer its customers such specific individual legal protection, then those customers could point out what their options are before they buy any more Microsoft stuff. First, they could wait two years to install Vista, just to see how things pan out with the Novell deal.

They also have more viable, non-Microsoft options now than in 15 years, from Google productivity applications as services to Oracle Unbreakable Linux data centers, to IBM virtualized Linux blade servers, to Sun’s Open Solaris — and we could go on.

It’s no joke. Does Microsoft have such a hold on you that you can’t make such negotiations? Would it be too hard or too costly to stop using Microsoft’s products so that you must bow to its demands on Linux? Don’t you have choice on IT? Shouldn’t you have choice?

No, I don’t think Microsoft has the power such that it can tell you what to use or not in your business to do your IT. Don’t take Redmond’s word for it. Get it in writing.

Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, which tracks trends, delivers forecasts, and interprets the competitive landscape of enterprise applications and software infrastructure markets for clients.

1 Comment

  • I think there’s a better option than trying to make special arrangements to pay protection money to Microsoft.
    Recognize that Microsoft is blowing smoke, and refuse to be scammed.
    Linux has been making Microsoft nervous for a very long time. Granted, they’re not in danger of going out of business anytime soon. But Linux doesn’t have to put Microsoft out of business to make them nervous. Linux just has to cost them revenue … and it already is.
    If Microsoft had real grounds to threaten Linux users, they would long since have done so. Since all they’re doing is __suggesting__ that maybe they might go something, we can be certain they have no real threats up their sleeves.
    That’s not to say that Microsoft might not have some patents they could claim Linux violates. But patents can be invalidated if prior art is found, and a number of the corporate champions of Linux — e.g. IBM — have much bigger patent portfolios that Microsoft is probably violating.
    Frankly, this insinuation of lawsuits to come is one of the sleazier tactics Microsoft has engaged in recently.
    They should not be rewarded for it.
    And if a company wants real insurance against Microsoft potentially suing them, buy a real insurance policy. Cheaper, and the money doesn’t wind up rewarding the sleazebags using the sleazeball tactics.
    After all, if Microsoft makes money with these tactics, they’ll keep using these tactics. The "insurance" money never stops that way….

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