Of the many definitions of extortion, this one is my favorite: “Illegal use of one’s official position or powers to obtain property, funds, or patronage.” While one might question whether it is illegal (and therefore truly extortion), Microsoft is certainly using a threat to litigate as leverage to obtain patronage from the Open Source community — in this case, the cooperation of Linux vendors to work with the jolly Redmond software giant on various compatibility issues. The return for this patronage is protection from any patent litigation involving Linux.
Microsoft’s shakedown of the Open Source community turned Novell into a Microsoft partner with SuSE Linux; now it has turned Xandros into a partner as well. Microsoft made them a deal they couldn’t refuse. The Open Source community has already decided to “grandfather” (or should it be Godfather) the Novell-Microsoft partnership into the final draft of version 3 of the General Public License (GPL 3). The controversial section of this license — on blocking future patent agreements — is now inapplicable to the Microsoft-Novell agreement (for details, see “How the last-call draft of the GPL 3 impacts the Microsoft/Novell agreement” by Ryan Paul in Ars Technica). Most likely the community will also sanction the Xandros agreement.
Like garbage hauling contractors in the Northeast Jersey of The Sopranos, Xandros and Novell have nothing to lose by paying tribute to Microsoft. In fact, the Linux desktop implementations, as well as Linux servers (well we knew that), are thriving in the shadow of Microsoft’s cold war. In particular Novell’s SuSE Linux is kicking ass and taking some customers away from Microsoft. It’s difficult to gauge what resistance there might be for businesses to adopt Linux in the shadow of Microsoft’s patent threats, but whatever resistance there is melts away in the light of Microsoft’s protection racket. That makes SuSE Linux and Xandros look more attractive for small and medium-sized businesses than other Linux distributions.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence. Whitelaw Twining, a Vancouver, Canada law corporation specializing in insurance and construction litigation and a Novell customer, evaluated a move to Vista (as well as to Xandros) before selecting SuSE Linux. “Novell had the best desktop solution for us,” said Richard Giroux, IT Manager at Whitelaw Twining. “We evaluated solutions based on the ability to create a safe environment, as well as what it would cost us in time and money to maintain them.” According to the IT manager, migrating from Windows 2000 to SuSE Linux was no more difficult than migrating to Vista. At the very least, Whitelaw reduced its hardware costs by 30% with the ability to run on cost-effective PCs, and reduced desktop maintenance time by 20%. The Nevada Department of Corrections, another Novell customer switching to SuSE Linux and Novell’s Open Enterprise Server, is saving potentially millions of dollars in software licensing costs.
OK, so if legal firms and government agencies feel safe, Microsoft’s protection racket must be working. Novell benefits from it now, and Xandros will benefit shortly. Are you a Linux vendor going it alone but looking for a way to protect your large customers and developers from legal ramifications in Redmond? Good luck with that.