Oh NOvell

Novell and Microsoft, what are you doing? The news is out, Novell and Microsoft are partnering for the sake of office document interoperability, virtualization, and service oriented arch smoothness. After reading the press, I’m left with a few irksome thoughts on what this amounts to. In spite of the potential upside to what this agreement may result in, as well as the fact that it appears Microsoft is publicly recognizing a requirement to somehow support Linux based on real customer demand, it also sounds like a dodge of something that isn’t being explicitely said.

1) Virtualization. According to Jeff Jaffe, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Novell, “As a result of this collaboration, customers will now be able to run virtualized Linux on Windows or virtualized Windows on Linux.” But this is not accurate. Customers are already able to run virtualized Linux on Windows or virtualized Windows on Linux via applications like VMWare, Parallels, and others. So the virtualization hype produced in this announcement sounds a little much, at least on the surface. Perhaps the two companies will produce something exciting and effective but the customers’ ability to do what they’re saying is not coming as a result of the Novell/Microsoft collaboration since that ability already exists.

2) Web services. “Microsoft and Novell will undertake work to make it easier for customers to manage mixed Windows and SUSE Linux Enterprise environments and to make it easier for customers to federate Microsoft Active Directory® with Novell eDirectory.” Ok, that sounds good. Though what does it portend for the future? Mitch Ratcliffe comments from ZDNet:

“I’m not saying Microsoft is evil, only that it makes these interoperability deals to defeat its partner, not help them. In the 90s, when both Windows and Novell Netware were under assault by IP networks, they tried to co-exist. Microsoft started making Netware-compatible versions of its local area network management and operating system software.”

One wonders if this is a matter of history repeating itself.

3) Document format compatibility. This seems to focus on improving the compatibility between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice (as Novell distributes it anyway). Err the document formats these applications use. Considering OpenOffice defaults to the Open Document Format (ODF) standard and Microsoft has been under increasing pressure to adhere to that standard or at least support it in addition to its own formats, this doesn’t really seem like huge news. This move toward compatibility has been ongoing anyway.

4) The thing that gets repeated over and over throughout the press release is the mutual affirmation not to kill each other over patents. And this is what I find a little weird about the whole thing. For the number of times this was mentioned and the lack of detail in why this is so important, it feels like a red herring to me. I wonder if this was designed to ward off or compromise on certain actions the companies may have been considering against each other. Here is a point on the monetary side of things from the press release

“Under the patent cooperation agreement, both companies will make upfront payments in exchange for a release from any potential liability for use of each other’s patented intellectual property, with a net balancing payment from Microsoft to Novell reflecting the larger applicable volume of Microsoft’s product shipments. Novell will also make running royalty payments based on a percentage of its revenues from open source products.”

Jason Matusow writes in his blog:

“What it really means is that customers deploying technologies from Novell and Microsoft no longer have to fear about possible lawsuits or potential patent infringement from either company.”

I wonder how much customers really had this fear. It seems like such a fear surfaced for a little and a number of companies began offering indemnification programs for open source solutions. But that faded rather quickly. Perhaps because the threat isn’t real enough to pick up many clients. I don’t remember exactly how this went, but the last LinuxWorld Expo I attended, there was a session in which conversation shifted toward the legal aspects of just how real or likely such lawsuit threats were. The opinion seemed to be that they were mostly FUD. Considering how “successful” ones like the SCO case are, it doesn’t seem like this has had a huge impact to many customers. Yet here Novell is, apparently ready to make royalty payments to Microsoft based on open source solutions it sells and so I am reminded of Mitch Ratcliffe’s comments again (which I cited above), where he likens the agreement to Dracula’s modus operandi.

In all of this, nobody hesitates to point out that this may be, at least in part, a response to Oracle and its recent Red Hat move–competitors to Microsoft and Novell. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols of Linux-Watch has an insightful write-up about this. If there’s going to be a dominant enterprise Linux platform, Novell would certainly rather have SUSE be the one and I’d expect Microsoft can only stand to gain by appearing aligned with a strong distribution that could give it comparable access to enterprise customers using Linux.


Addendum – 22:51

The red herring of this deal that I mentioned I suspected, may have been revealed by Bruce Perens. He theorizes that this is actually a means for Microsoft to set up the conditions for an environment, which enables it to sue. It would seem to need some “correct” paths available before pursuing patent suits against Free software systems.

“Even if everyone were to be protected regarding software that Novell distributes, there’s the tremendous collection of Free Software that they don’t distribute. A logical next move for Microsoft could be to crack down on “unlicensed Linux”, and “unlicensed Free Software”, now that it can tell the courts that there is a Microsoft-licensed path. Or they can just passively let that threat stay there as a deterrent to anyone who would use Open Source without going through the Microsoft-approved Novell path.”

That’s quite a strategy. Except there is some question as to whether Novell would still be able to even offer something under a GPL license. Furthermore, I have a hard time seeing how this could ever truly be that effective. A GNU/Linux system has many heads, which appear in a widely dispersed environment of physical and virtuals realms, governed by a multitude of laws that are not all US-based, and embraced by many people that just don’t need to care. I don’t see them all being cut off.

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