These days everyone is talking about the Novell/Microsoft deal. I’ve been reading a few comments, yet it’s difficult to understand what will be the final outcome of the new scenario in front of us: are we all doomed, or is this the beginning of a new era for Open Source? While the jury is out, I can’t help thinking along the lines of Mohandas Gandhi and his all-famous quote:
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
The problem is now understanding whether Open Source hit the “you win” phase or if we just entered a new phase of the fight. For one, I can clearly see a great value in Microsoft acknowledging Open Source: I’m grown up enough not to believe in the tooth fairy of Microsoft drones selling Linux to their customers, but still having a written statement from Ballmer stating that Linux has a place in the IT ecosystem is quite an accomplishment. Not that we, and the IT world outside Redmond, didn’t know as of yet, but still it has a value.
The flip side of the coin, unfortunately, is a stroke of genius of Ballmer and friends, as they managed to inject a notable size of FUD in the average IT buyer. After the wreckage of the SCO lawsuit and their stupid attempt to turn the tables of patents, IP and Open Source, Microsoft has been able to avoid an explicit face off with the Open Source community by using rule #1 of marketing and sales: describe negative connotation in terms of positive statements. Instead of saying “one of these days we are going to sue your ass off”, they are stating that using SuSe won’t cause any litigation from their side. What that sentence really means is that the sheer majority of Linux users should consider themselves at risk, as they can and might sue at will whoever doesn’t use Novell’s Linux distribution.
And wait, there is more: keeping up with the idea of speaking in positive terms, Microsoft agrees not to sue developers operating in their private non-professional capacity. This interesting statement brings two powerful weapons to the revamped ship of Borg: other than carrying the hidden message that they might sue any professional Open Source developer, this statement is really an impressive way to subliminally downplay Open Source as amateur stuff produced by hobbyists they shouldn’t care about. All this without giving up their ability to threaten and possibly sue developers, as the vast majority of them is somehow tied to Open Source in a professional fashion. Chapeau, Microsoft.
My overall reading of the announcement, though, is far from being negative, even though I wouldn’t cling to RedHat stocks in the short term. What I see between the lines is not only Microsoft being scared of Open Source (it’s no news to us): they are now recognizing the need to interoperate, as per customer demand. Nevermind the results, as I don’t think we’ll see anything other than minor stuff coming from the joint Microsoft-Novell labs, this is an important statement in itself. Last but not least, from the legal front, it’s clear how Microsoft is reluctant to fight a court battle suing final customers on the argument of patents. While they’re making a point in saying that they might have defendable IP in some Open Source codebases, their attempt to sell their rights as an upfront insurance fee to Linux vendors is to me a tell-tale sign of how they are, after all, unwilling to face the backlash and the odds SCO has been going through. Yes, they might, but no, they won’t: it’s business as usual in Open Source-land.