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Red Hat tight lipped on Microsoft talks

But middleware will make it chatty

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Analysis The debate over who in the Linux camp will next get into bed with Microsoft is back on, after Red Hat's chief executive admitted to holding patent talks.

The only question is over what terms and at what point.

CEO Matthew Szulik has reportedly confirmed what we've heard for months: that Microsoft approached Red Hat with exactly the same deal it offered Novell but was turned down. Meanwhile, Novell signed to win wavering customers.

Szulik, though, apparently declined to comment on whether Red Hat is still in negotiations with Microsoft over signing a patent agreement. That's the subjective part.

Refusals to comment are seen in two ways: either as a tacit admission of guilt or as the familiar "talks are always on going" disclaimer used to squash rumors.

The comments appeared after Szulik stated again for the cheap seats on Wall St, Red Hat's stance on talking to Microsoft about patents. Announcing first-quarter results Szulik tactfully told analysts: "We continue to invite the opportunity to participate with Microsoft around standards in improving the customer experience of operating successfully in heterogeneous environments."

Has Red Hat, which gives customers patent protection and has set out its views on IP in Linux here, changed from belligerent to pragmatist? The tone of Szulik's comments will certainly suggest the later and will perpetuate the simmering debate over which among the Linux community will next sign a patent protection deal with Microsoft.

Red Hat has made a reputation as the industry's spiky maverick; however, CEOs are renowned for settling differences quickly when there's a business benefit.

It is telling that Szulik's words to Wall St focused on interoperability in mixed environments. Reading the text and tone of Microsoft's recent patent deals with Xandros and Linspire, their managements' denials they discussed patents or that they accepted Microsoft's position, suggests such deals owe more to traditional cross-licensing of Windows intellectual property to help improve their Linux's features and interoperability between their Linux desktops and Windows. After years of failing to help the Linux desktop jump the chasm from early adopter to mass market, Xandros and Linspire may have recognized they need some Windows magic.

For those dismissing the likelihood of Red Hat getting into bed with Microsoft, consider Red Hat already has a relationship thanks to an earlier JBoss deal. In September 2005, JBoss and Microsoft agreed to provide assistance, guidance and performance tuning for customers using JBoss, EJB 3.0 and Hibernate with Active Directory, Microsoft Operations Manager and the SQL Server database.

Representatives from both camps will have continued liaising through that deal, and will have uncovered new ways to work together. Such is the nature of vendor relationships.

It will be middleware, and better interoperability with Windows on performance and improved management, that will become more important to Red Hat in the future and drive talks with Microsoft. Red Hat is trying to diversify and to persuade customers to adopt JBoss in mission critical and back-office deployments.

If Red Hat and Microsoft are talking interoperability, the sticking point in any interoperability agreement will be the fact it comes bundled with acceptance of Microsoft's patent claims. If Red Hat can divorce the two on the server - and for its fledgling desktop - then you'll likely see Red Hat come around to an expanded relationship with Microsoft.®

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