Microsoft-Novell deal spells death knell for Open Source?

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Canadian supporters of open source software believe the recently forged partnership between Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. will have negative repercussions for the free software community.

As part of the deal, Microsoft has said it will support Suse Linux on machines that run Windows. Microsoft will also co-develop technologies with Novell to make it easier for users to run both Suse Linux and Microsoft Windows on their computers.

The alliance was a brilliant move on the part of Microsoft but a blunder by Novell that could compromise the future of the open source community said Russell McOrmond, policy coordinator of the Canadian Association for Open Software (CLUE).

“This is like a deal with the devil,” McOrmond said.

On Thursday, Novell and Microsoft issued announced a set of broad business and technical collaboration agreements designed to facilitate the interoperability of their products.

Their statement said “customers will realize unprecedented choice and flexibility through improved interoperability and manageability between Windows and Linux.”

Although CLUE has not formulated an official statement to deal with the issue, McOrmond explained the deal amounted to nothing less than an admission Novell that its products infringed on Microsoft’s licenses. For its part, the Redmond, Wash-based company promises not to sue Novell, McOrmond said.

“This deal saves Novell’s hide, but strengthens Microsoft’s case against other open source developers and their claims that Linux infringes on Microsoft’s intellectual property.”

McOrmond added that Microsoft realized that open source software has become viable alternatives to its products and the agreement was a way to control Linux.

Groklaw.com a Web site frequented by the open source community characterized the deal as “a covenant not to sue, not a true cross licensing deal.”

Microsoft’s Web site contained this guarantee to customers that covered the agreement with Novell:

“Microsoft, on behalf of itself and its Subsidiaries (collectively “Microsoft”), hereby covenants not to sue Novell’s Customers and Novell’s Subsidiaries’ Customers for infringement under Covered Patents of Microsoft on account of a such Customers’ use of specific copies of a Covered Product as distributed by Novell or its Subsidiaries (collectively “Novell”) for which Novell has received Revenue (directly or indirectly) for such specific copies…”

Groklaw said the agreement was a clever way of getting around the general public license , a free software license written by Richard Stallman.

The GPL grants recipients the following rights:

• The right to run the open source program for any desired purpose

• The right to study how the program works and modify it

• The right to redistribute copies

• The right to improve the program and release the improvements to the public

Another post on the Groklaw.com Web site said Microsoft “has found a Linux vendor foolish enough to legitimize a patent claim on Linux by Microsoft.”

“Now, it’s only a matter of asserting claims against all distributors, except Novell, thereby thinning the herd.”

At least one Canadian analyst firm, however, is optimistic about the deal.

The development is seen as a “milestone in the evolution of open source software (OSS) in the corporate data centre,” according to Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ontario.

“Proponents of OSS in the enterprise can celebrate the validation of Linux as a viable solution,” said Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech.”It was smart move for Microsoft, because they know the industry is moving that way.”

The move opens the door for more effective server architectures and cost-saving improvements in areas such as virtualization, he said.

A U.K.-based analyst agrees with this assessment.

“It will simplify the virtualization of mixed Windows and Linux environments and provide organizations with the reassurance of vendor support,” said Tim Jennings, head of research at the Butler Group.

The agreement makes it easier for Microsoft to defend its market position against Oracle, IBM and Sun by partnering with a credible player that is not a top-tier competitor, said Jennings.

Novell, on the other, benefits from the association with a strong company such as Microsoft. “The deal is certainly good for Novell since it has been playing second fiddle to Red Hat in the enterprise Linux market,” Jennings said.

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