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MS and Novell: the end of a good feud

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Comment And so, last week, “Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. ... announced a set of broad business and technical collaboration agreements to build, market and support a series of new solutions to make Novell and Microsoft products work better together. The two companies also announced an agreement to provide each other’s customers with patent coverage for their respective products. These agreements will be in place until at least 2012”.

I doubt it's as simple as that.

What counts here is the patents protection. I suspect that customers have made it clear to Novell and Microsoft that they want to to use Linux and Windows, depending on what makes sense for a particular application, and don't want either vendor putting artificial obstacles in their way.

According to the release, “As part of this agreement, Microsoft will provide a covenant not to assert its patent rights against customers who have purchased SUSE Linux Enterprise Server or other covered products from Novell, and Novell will provide an identical covenant to customers who have a licensed version of Windows or other covered products from Microsoft”. This is a sign, possibly, that the locus of power may be moving away from the vendors to their customers – who, after all, pay for all this stuff.

As a Novell CNE and ex-network-manager, I have mixed feelings about all this. I welcome any signs that our industry is growing up and ditching petty squabbles in favour of making its technologies work together. After all, the industry’s record on interoperability is pretty dismal and I’m sure that Microsoft’s claims that Linux infringes some of its IP rights isn’t helping Linux uptake – and choice is good.

On the other hand, I remember when Microsoft replaced Netware as the LAN OS of choice – with something that was less secure (unless you ran your network servers without a network connection), slower, less stable (unless you ran one application per server, like Netware did) – and which didn’t even have proper directory services. In that bit of the feud, Novell was comprehensively outclassed through a combination of being too nice and too complacent about having a more “fit for purpose” product – as documented entertainingly in Merrill Chapman’s “In Search of Stupidity”, Chapter 9 (1st ed): From Godzilla to Gecko(I haven't read the 2nd ed yet, but it's available here and should be good).

Collaboration with Microsoft can be pretty high risk – when Citrix first appeared as an important Microsoft partner, I remember one of its executives describing the experience to me as riding the back of a tiger: fast moving, very impressive to your competition – but getting off without being eaten was a nightmare.

Presumably, Microsoft sees Linux virtualisation as a way of running Windows bridgeheads into the Open Source world, rather than as a friendly exit strategy for people that have got tired of the Windows licensing model. However, I'm not sure how running Linux OSS under a licensed Windows virtualisation, or running licensed Windows components under a virtualised Open Source OS, will fit with the OSS culture or OSS licences such as the GPL. This deal might make Suse the Enterprise Linux of choice but Red Hat has been taking lessons from Catherine Tate on not looking bovvered here.

I think this is definitely a case where the “breaking news” isn't really the story. Better to wait and see how things pan out in practice. As Scott Ambler said in a seminar once, “always remember, the vendor isn’t your friend”. Even if it suits their marketing strategies to appear friendly and helpful, few vendors are purely altruistic – even if they try hard to be customer focused, shareholders usually have to come first,

So, you may well chose to believe Brad Smith, general counsel of Microsoft, when he explains that: “Both companies had to think creatively about how to create an intellectual property bridge between the two worlds of open source and proprietary software. This bridge is built on respect for the innovations of each company and the open source community, and a passion for what we can deliver for our customers together”.

It’s about time. But if I were thinking of betting my company on a mixed Windows/Linux platform, I’d still tread cautiously. ®

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