Is Microsoft getting ready to attack Linux

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Is Microsoft getting ready to attack Linux and open-source software with its patents?

Florian Mueller, spokesman for the European NoSoftwarePatents.com and a leading anti-patent activist, thinks that may be the case. Mueller sees a recent Forbes interview with Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer as stopping just " short announcing patent litigation against Linux."


In the interview, Ballmer said, "Well, I think there are experts who claim Linux violates our intellectual property. I'm not going to comment. But to the degree that that's the case, of course we owe it to our shareholders to have a strategy. And when there is something interesting to say, you'll be the first to hear it."

Mueller reasons that, "By 'intellectual property' he must mean patents. IP is a broad term and includes diverse rights, but it's hard to see how Linux would infringe any trade mark rights or copyrights held by Microsoft. However, given the size of the Linux code, it's almost certain that it will violate a number of patents, and some of them, such as the ones on the FAT file system, may indeed be held by Microsoft."

Others who are also concerned with open-source and patents don't see Ballmer's recent comments as being anything new.

"Well, I wouldn't say that [these comments are] noise, [but] it's actually less than they've said in the past," said Daniel B. Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation.

"The 'experts' I think [Ballmer is] referring to is my report from a couple years ago about Linux and patents. But, I've been over that and directly responded to his misinformed interpretation of that study," said Ravicher.

Specifically, though, in the current situation, Ravicher said, "I like Florian a lot, but I think I see this a little differently than he does. To me, these statements by Ballmer are nothing new. Of course, there's always a threat that Microsoft will use its patents against free software. I just don't think that this interview by Ballmer manifests an increase in that threat."

Stuart Cohen, CEO of OSDL (Open Source Development Labs), agrees with Ravicher.

"Microsoft subtly makes these threats from time to time to maintain a level of uncertainty for Linux vendors and users, said Cohen. But, "We know Microsoft would fall on its own sword if it launched a large suit against a Linux vendor or user and would lose any credibility it might hope to gain in the world of open source software, which needs to be an increasing aspect of its business strategy"

"Also, Linux and open source software are simply too infused in the enterprise for Microsoft to alienate its own customers, who are also Linux users. In fact, studies are showing that Linux has overtaken Unix and is now displacing Windows on the server. It is also making inroads on the desktop, and last week's Vista delay opened that window even wider."

Microsoft is too smart a company to attempt these losing efforts and now, more than ever, needs to embrace open source instead of hiding behind a strategy of FUD," concluded Cohen.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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