Microsoft’s Motives Behind The 235 IP Infringements
We’ve all seen Microsoft’s latest frenzy. They are accusing Linux, Open Office and other open source software of a massive patent infringement. “The numbers and locations of the alleged violations break down as follows: 42 violations within the Linux kernel itself, 65 within the “Linux GUI,” though the article doesn’t specify whether these infringements apply to one GUI or apply equally to all the Linux desktop environments. OpenOffice allegedly violates an additional 45 patents, e-mail programs infringe on another 15 patents, and an unspecified array of “other” OSS programs violate a further 68 patents.”, according to Ars Technica (view link above for complete article).
It’s too late for me to try to turn this post into news, this is relatively old. Yet this begs to ask a couple of questions:
Why are they not specifying the patents that are in breach? We know that Microsoft has patented everything from the Recycle Bin to the Double Click (yes Microsoft, I said “Recycle Bin”, sue me!). It almost seems like something out of science fiction that they were awarded these patents, but what’s done is done. Is that they know their patent claims are so ridiculous that no one would take them seriously? Is it that, even though I’m sure there are infringements, 235 is just a pretty number and they haven’t actually made the necessary research?
Why wait until this moment? These infringements are nothing new. What is so lovely of this time of year to bring it up? Was their legal team slacking and got assigned some new homework?
Why just make an announcement but take no real legal action? No official suits have been presented in court. Who will be sued? The Linux foundation? Open source companies? End users?
To find the answers to these questions one must analyze the recent history of Linux and some insight might just pop up.
First you have the lovely deal between Microsoft and Novell. According to the B.S. Steve Ballmer and Ronald Hovsepian the plan was to “their companies planned to work together to improve interoperability and increase the viability of enterprise virtualization technology”. What they tried to undertone in the announcement, but everyone focused on anyway, was “As part of the deal, the two companies created a controversial patent indemnification pact: both companies agreed not to sue each other’s customers”. Or more importantly, Microsoft would not sue Novell and it’s users. Novell made a pact with the Devil to avoid patent hell.
This has several implications. Microsoft is saying that while open source software is evil and a detriment to the industry, Novell has been awarded a “get out of jail free” card. This two sided blade continues to emphasize what they’ve said about open source all along. They also clearly reinforced their intentions of going after Linux users in the future. If not, why would this deal be important? At the very least scare Linux vendors into similar agreements.
Then you have the top U.S. desktop computer maker deciding to sell computers with Ubuntu Linux pre-installed. When a vendor like system76 it really doesn’t worry Microsoft. Hell, even Lenovo did it. But when the top computer seller in America makes this move, it will have serious repercussions. It all started with a project called IdeaStorm. It was a digg clone that Dell customers would use to tell the company what they wished for in new hardware, what they were unhappy about, how they could better their products and services. The folks at Dell were amazed when they got hundreds of thousands of petitions for open source office suite alternatives, firefox set as the default browser, and ship Linux preinstalled. Dell has had a recent history of very bad press. Ranging from the laptop battery scandal, to poor service for paying customers. Actually going through could be a way for them to get a bit of good publicity.
Now, I doubt this will be a best seller. They will probably sell some tens of thousands of computers with Linux. Let’s hope I’m mistaken and the number jumps to six figures. Microsoft is not worried that this will curb Vista sales. That won’t happen in a very, very long time. But it will raise awareness of Linux in the everyday mortals who don’t know better. It’s effect will be measured in the future, not the present.
You also need to take into context all of the litigation that has been in the press recently over online media trading. I’m not going to go into that right now. I actually wrote an article on it recently, not that it wasn’t an over covered subject anyway. Basically “free music” or “free movies” are being portrayed as evil. While they are convenient to you, they are adding to the collapse of the media industry as a whole. Your favorite artists will all be forced to stop producing media and get day jobs. The complete entertainment industry faces demise. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. But the important thing is that a concept is being induced into people’s minds. Something that isn’t a new concept, but is getting more traction these days: free is evil.
Of course they are referring to free as in beer (free of charge), as opposed to free as in speech (you are granted the liberty to remix and redistribute). There is a very fine distinction. Most products in the OSS spectrum are free as in beer, but the few that have a price tag attached to them don’t get their freedom revoked. Yet, as anyone working in advertising will probably suggest, since both concepts are expressed with the same word it’s easy to add your own little twists on top of the already massive ignorance and confusion.
Is Microsoft just using these patent infringement allegations to further shed shadow over the Linux community? I think so. There really is no plan to sue anyone. They just need to do something to hurt Linux on the public relations front. They have been getting too much light recently. This has to be stopped before the snowflake rolls into an avalanche! You know what Microsoft? This may just be a classic case of too little, too late.