Last week Novell and Microsoft announced a cooperation. I’d like to write a bit about what the announcement means especially for openSUSE.
The announcement covers three areas:
- A technical cooperation agreement were Novell and Microsoft will work together in the areas of virtualization, web services management and document format compatibility.
- A patent cooperation.
- A business cooperation between Novell and Microsoft
The business cooperation does not directly affect us at openSUSE at all.
The technical cooperation affects us in so far that the outcome of the work will end finally in the openSUSE distribution, e.g. the changes will go in the OpenOffice repository and then find its way into openSUSE. Far more important is that Microsoft and Novell do work together and will setup a research facility where experts from both companies will work together with customers and the community.
Under the technical cooperation Microsoft and Novell will work together to improve the interoperability of both Windows and Linux. Currently you can run Windows virtualized on Linux but the other way round is not working – now Microsoft and Novell will work together to support this. Additionally the virtualization support is going to be better optimized.
Most users have to exchange documents with people running Microsoft Windows. The collaboration on the filter for Office Open XML will ensure that this works smoothly for them. OpenOffice.org will continue to use Open Document Format by default and Novell will continue to invest in improving it.
I doubt that many of us will benefit from the Web services for managing physical and virtual servers. I find it interesting to see that Microsoft will develop tools to manage Linux systems.
For working together with each other and the community, there’s one road block that Novell and Microsoft had to resolve – patents. The patent cooperation is controversial for many people. Note that I personally think that software patents in its current form are completely wrong and should all be invalid – but since they exist, we have to work with them somehow.
We have an internal intellectual property review process at openSUSE for quite some time already that checks all packages, this covers both contributions by internal and external developers. Due to this announcement, we will not change that process in any way at all. If our reviewers find packages that would infringe a patent they will take the necessary actions independent of who owns the patent. The normal way to handle a patent infringement is to find prior technology to invalidate the patents, rework the code to design around the infringement, or as last resort remove the functionality.
There’s one exception where we do ship code that potentially infringes patents – and Red Hat seems to do the same thing in this example: If the patent is declared by a party to be completely open for any open
source software, like IBM gave a royalty free license for GPL software with some patents regarding register allocation in GCC and RCU in the Linux kernel, then we would consider allowing the code to go in.
We’re also shipping code that we have contracted like the proprietary – closed source – RealPlayer where our contract with Real allows the distribution and RealPlayer contains as far as I’m aware licensed code.
We have basically two different groups that the patent cooperation addresses, customers and developers, so let’s look separately at them:
A number of our potential customers had serious concerns that especially Microsoft would sue them if they use Linux code and Microsoft would claim patents are infringed by Linux code – as SCO sued Autozone and DaimlerChrysler as Linux users (not for patents but I think this is something that gave a bad example). With the new agreement, they can be sure that Microsoft will not sue them, even if Novell had shipped this code with their Linux distribution before.
Open source developers write code – and nobody can ever check all the patents that are out there. If they wrote code that infringed Microsoft’s patents, then Microsoft could sue them, but due to the Novell/Microsoft agreement they are protected now. I still expect that the developers – once becoming aware of an infringement – change the code so that it can be freely distributed e.g. under the GPL.
The statement here is two-fold: Microsoft will not sue individuals – the patent pledge does not cover companies – that are either a) non-commercial developers, e.g. work in their spare time and not for
money or b) write code that ends in our SUSE Linux Enterprise distribution (this covers also individuals receiving money for their open source work). In the first case (non-commercial developer) this patent pledge is not revocable by Microsoft – unless the developer chooses to pursue patent ligitation against Microsoft. This is a standard clause that can be found also in many open source licenses, one example is the “Open Software License”.
Let me state clearly: We do not think that Novell’s Linux distributions violate valid patents – but if they do, we do change the code to avoid or work around the patent. Meanwhile we have some means in place to protect customers and developers better. So, it’s some kind of important insurance.
We did not expect that Microsoft would sue individuals. But who would have known a couple of years ago that the record industry is going after individuals downloading or copying music and driving them in bankruptcy. Therefore the agreements consider a promise not to sue.
Novell is a founding member of the Open Invention Network (OIN) which was formed to protect many commonly distributed open source and free software packages, including Linux, from legal attacks, no matter where an attack comes from. OIN provides coverage to the entire Linux industry by providing a form of retaliatory protection for Linux customers, developers and companies that might be targeted in patent litigation.
Novell is strongly committed to OIN and will continue in its support, we are one of the members that brought in a significant patent pool to protect Linux. The Novell/Microsoft agreement strengthens the protection of our customers.
I think that with this agreements between Novell and Microsoft the intellectual property situation is not worse than before – for some users and developers the status quo has not changed and for others it is improved.
Microsoft is historically the arch-enemy of Linux. So, is this “sleeping with the enemy”, “Novell selling out” – or a 180 degree turn of Microsoft? I think all of us fear Microsoft and therefore are very cautious about every step they do. I’m interested whether this is a first step in a new direction and others will follow – or just a trap? Microsoft is still competition and both Novell and Microsoft state this. But they want to make Linux and Windows work together seamlessly so that the customer is not the looser in this competition (see the technical cooperation). Microsoft is facing for some time an image problem, investigation from the EU lawyers about monopolistic behaviour and faces competition from Oracle and Google – one can only guess what has brought this change in direction by Microsoft.
So, let us continue to work as before and build the finest distribution – and beat Microsoft Windows 😉