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Upset About Microsoft/Novell?? Take A Pill!

November 8th, 2006 View Comments

Sorry to write a technical article on the Half Bad Boy Blog. I hope you can bear with me. Its just that the general reaction to this whole Microsoft/Novell agreement is so baffling that I really need to talk about it.

I’m assuming you are familiar with Open Source and Linux, the freely-available and freely-created operating system which is one of the flagship open source offerings. The community of developers and users behind open source are a particular and idealistic group, not necessarily all of the same mindset, but with some generally common goals. Among them: The idea that the rights of a person to use and even modify software should be unrestricted; the passion to create high-quality, great, useful software products; and the belief that the movement is ultimately unstoppable.

And when you think about it, it is unstoppable. Linux is truly a great operating system – secure, stable, powerful, fast, versatile, and actually quite easy to use. It is a strong competitor to Microsoft Windows – better at Windows at some things, not better at others. Yet. But there are only really two main ways for a company like Microsoft to compete with Linux – on price and on features. Since Linux is free, Microsoft cannot beat Linux on price – unless they start paying people to use Windows. And with thousands of developers around the world working on Linux for free, there is ultimately no way that Microsoft can compete on the basis of features.

The effect of open source is the commoditization of software. Interesting projects will draw more developers, leading to better software, making the project more interesting, etc. The process snowballs, and once it gets to a certain size, it is pretty much unstoppable. The licensing and intellectual property laws protecting it ensure that this is the case.

Linux is beyond this point. It is not better than Windows, yet. But there is no stopping it. Eventually the computer operating system will become a commodity, and we can thank Linux for it. Microsoft won’t be able to make money there anymore.

Those of us involved in the open source movement know this. We have foreseen this for years. We understand the effect of the movement. For years people involved in open source have viewed Microsoft as the enemy, because they are the antithesis of everything the open source community stands for (with the possible exception of quality software – and some would even disclaim that exception). Those involved in open source have for years said that the movement would ultimately mean the demise of Microsoft’s business models, and the death of Windows as we know it today.

Surely these people don’t think they knew something that Microsoft didn’t. Right? Right???

Come on, people. You had to know that Microsoft would know this. Whatever you may think of Microsoft as a company – ruthless, shady, cutthroat, etc. – you surely don’t think they are stupid. They realized the same things you did, long ago. They must have figured out, long ago, that eventually they will have to adjust their business plan to align themselves with this movement. They would have to do that or die.

You would think that any step that Microsoft would take in such a direction would be a sign of a clear victory. It should be viewed as a sign that the day finally came – the day when Microsoft realized they had to figure out how to play nicely with open source in order to survive. This should be viewed as the day open source won – the day when technology works on open source’s terms, not the other way around.

That is what I find baffling about the reaction to this deal. The most logical explanation for this decision, on Microsoft’s part, is that they realized that they needed to do this to remain relevant. Why else would they be willing to pay Novell $348M to enter into this deal? Many so-called open source experts have said that Microsoft is doing this in order to take over Linux. Hello, people! They can’t do that, because of the licensing of Linux. For so-called open source experts, you sure don’t understand open source very well.

Some people were initially upset about this arrangement because they were sure it violated the GPL. They were sure of this despite the fact that both Novell and Microsoft have many experienced, paid intellectual property lawyers on staff to make very sure that no such violation existed in the agreement. Now, they are upset because they think the arrangement should be a violation, even though it apparently isn’t (IANAL).
I find this pretty interesting because of prior experience I’ve had with people regarding the GPL. I can’t recount how many times arguments I’ve had with people over the GPL have included them saying some variant of the phrase, “Well, that is not what the GPL is intended to mean.”
If you want to play in the realm of law and intellectual property, you have to play by the rules of the game, and one of the rules of the game is that a copyright license covers exactly what it states that it covers. Intent is of no significance.

I could go on and on here, but I won’t. To summarize, my point here is simply twofold:

  • This agreement should be viewed as a win for the open source movement. Novell’s stated objectives are to promote and protect open source. Microsoft’s stated objectives are harmony and interoperability. The most logical explanation for this is that Microsoft needed to make this move to remain competitive.
  • Any parts of this agreement that you think violate the GPL are more likely a) your incorrect assumptions based on information you don’t have, or b) your misunderstanding of copyright law such that the GPL should mean what it is meant to mean, and not necessarily what it says. Frankly, you pretty much need to just shut up and deal with it. You are being pretty presumptuous to assume that you know more about law than paid corporate IP lawyers.

I’m still waiting to see an argument against this that actually holds any water. Until then, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt. The principle of Occam’s Razor implies that the most logical explanation is likely the right one – and the most logical explanation is nothing but positive for the open source movement. Take a pill and relax.

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