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Introducing Novell's Cunning Plan

When Novell signed the now-famous agreement with Microsoft, I must admit that I was quite puzzled. For a company making most of its business by selling free and open source software, this seemed unreal; maybe there was a good reason for that, after all. But when I read the part on the patents and the indemnification of customers, I really found out that it was quite odd and contradicting anything I ever read about the GPL.

I have however refrained from giving in the Novell-bashing fashion for several reasons.

This article reflects my personal point of view only, and does not mean that the OpenOffice.org project nor my company, Ars Aperta, endorse this opinion in any way.

Several years ago, I was an intern at Novell. I used to be the « Linux guy » in their Paris office. It meant that I was more or less in charge of training and explaining the to the sales force what Free Software was all about, and how to market it to enterprise customers. It was quite of an experience, since Suse had just been acquired. I also knew and know several people at Novell, mostly because Novell is an important contributor of the OpenOffice.org project.

Following the announcement, I was thus quickly in contact with folks at Novell. I spoke with several people there, some key people in the marketing, some others in the development departments. The reaction surprized me even more. The developers put aside, I will refer to people in the marketing at Novell whose behaviour is in my humble opinion very much telling us about a miscalculation, and not about a treason.

When that marketing guy from Novell called me, I was expecting two things. He would either explain me that I was wrong and that the announcement did not mean what I and many others thought it meant, or he would take an almost devilish tone and tell me that we, the imbecile mass of the so-called community, were doomed and that now the big corporations were back in charge of Linux. No way. He called me and asked me -cheerfully- if I had enjoyed the announcement. He then told me: « Charles, isn't it beautiful? We got them hooked up! We're breaking the barriers and this will end up in a total disaster for Redmond. Linux has won! ».

I was about to say something bad to this person but his very attitude was showing ignorance, spontaneity, and above all, bona fide. This is what stopped me being aggressive. I explained to him what the announcement meant for me and as I had gathered, for many inside the community. The man on the phone simply could not believe a word of it. At some point, he told me that Novell could not be a traitor given the amount of money they had invested in Free Software. And he was right.

Novell did not simply acquire Suse or Ximian. They kept the development teams, push them more actively towards contributing to projects, freed some code (YAST, Ifolder, etc.) created new ones, while beefing up their teams on Gnome and OpenOffice.org. So this man, and to may other Novell employees at every level I was able to talk to, the « treason » scenario was met with awe and disbelief. Novell rightly bet its house on Linux and OpenOffice.org.

Talking with these people and to many others inside and around OpenOffice.org got me thinking. When browsing the flame threads against Novell on the Net there was that assumption that Novell has sold out, and assuming this since the beginning cannot give any chance to the discovery of the truth in this affair. To keep things simple though, I would just like to remind my readers that I do not agree with the agreement on the GPL and patents Novell signed with Microsoft. However, I do think that the truth lies elsewhere in this story.

So what if Novell had not sold out? If we consider that the Novell executives are not the donkeys some would like to see in order to give way to their own arguments, the scenario of the « Novell's Cunning Plan™ » comes to mind. What this means is that Novell may perhaps have defined a strategy that would trap Microsoft and let Novell grow its market share of Linux and other software.

Now we should keep two things in mind: First, Novell cannot possibly invest dozens, if not hundreds of millions in Free Software projects and turn away from it at the first whim and phone call from Microsoft. That is just unrealistic. Second, remember that Novell has a small shareholder called IBM. What this implies is too far-reaching in order to draw conclusions in haste. But it will have its importance soon.

So Novell signs an agreement that is a multi-tiered contract stipulating that Novell and Microsoft should cooperate on certain key technologies and that both companies patents should be set aside for a period of five years.

Living in Europe does not help us understand how sensitive and at the same time nonsensical the habit of suing companies and people for patent infringement has become in America. Software patents are such an intellectual monstruosity that they are now devoid of any base (legal or moral) and that they are used as nuclear warheads aiming at the opponent's base.

So for Microsoft and Novell to agree on patents and sharing their so-called intellectual property is a real progress for both of them in a sense. It means that they agree to cooperate on some common projects, without fearing a deadly trial. Let us make no mistake here. The statements of the two parties made clear that they were competitors and would always remain so. A patent peace only means that in theory, nobody is going to launch its nuclear missiles. The very existence, the essence and the raison d'être of each opponent remains untouched; conventional warfare, cold wars and constant struggle continue just like before.

As an example, Microsoft still want to destroy Linux. And Novell still want to grow its Linux market share; that is why they have agreed on working together over the virtualization technologies. Those two, and I would be tempted to claim that Red Hat, IBM and many others if they had had this opportunity, are working on the same technology, easing each other's access on it. They can then promote the fact that customers can choose to run hassle-free, virtualized instances of the opponent's operating system, in the hope that the customers will choose their platform as the default operating system. It thus makes perfect sense for a company like Microsoft, or like Novell, to agree on cooperating with its greatest enemy.

And while Novell really wishes to ease the pains of a migration to Linux, Microsoft wants at the same time win customers back to Windows and taint the code of Linux and other Free Software projects with its « intellectual property ». This is how it works.

But I think—I talk with a lot of people these days—that this is not the only reason why Novell chose to partner with Microsoft. Let's go back to the Novell's Cunning Planâ„¢ now.

Few people are aware that Novell has not just lots of patents, it also has patents of great quality. For instance, the SCO affair reminded us that Novell holds some very, very substantial rights over Unix. And Novell has patents all over the place: authentification, operating systems, desktops, networks, etc. So Microsoft got really interested in those, and this for instance would explain part of the financial circuitry that has been put in place by this partnership, and why the net balance of the deal was in favour of Novell.

But according to that hypothetical plan defined by Novell, they would be the first of Microsoft opponents to agree on a patent peace together, at the exception of Sun Microsystems. Yet, Sun was another story. It really looked similar at that time, but the issues at stake were different, and patent issue was handled differently, perhaps because a major trial was ongoing between Sun and Redmond at that time, and perhaps because Sun's patents were not as crucial to Microsoft as Novell's.

When Novell offered that peace treaty to Microsoft, it must have looked like a great opportunity. The bride looked beautiful, healthy and rich. Microsoft just had to reach to her and sign the deal. The maneuvers, contract disruptions and insolent public statements would come later. Perhaps the one who lost in this deal was not Novell, after all: by agreeing on a patent peace, Microsoft neutralized Novell's intellectual property. But it also neutralized its own.

And in my humble opinion, this is the crux of the whole story. This is not to say that Novell did something that we should respect or admire. This is just to say that patents are so remote to the values of the Free Software community, so inadequate of the way the software world works that Novell and Microsoft played their game on another level.

And Novell made the craziest bet of its entire corporate life: it bet its patents against the ones of Microsoft. In a sense, this is even crazier than buying—no pun intended—Suse and Ximian.

Connecting the dots further, we can come to conclusions that are quite surprizing. What part did IBM play in this story? Could it be that as a shareholder of Novell, nobody at IBM knew what was going on? Or perhaps some big players knew this all too well. Perhaps, after all, Novell was one of the most cleverly-designed and dressed-up company to serve as a bait against Microsoft. Who knows... I do not claim to know the truth, and many dots can of course be connected in many different ways.

What I know however, is that Novell did not betray the Free Software community.

Somewhere very high up the food chain, someone simply overlooked the fact that Novell can only live through Free Software. Someone overlooked the fact that there is no software patents in Europe. Someone overlooked the fact that there is no clear definition of a non-compensated worker that can be legally-binding. Someone overlooked the fact that Free Software is not just about how to circumvent some provisions of the GPL, but that Free Software is about respect and transparency as well.

But somewhere very high up, a bit further in the northwest of the United States, someone else overlooked the fact that it might have lost the war.

Charles H. Schulz is the Lead of the Native-Language Confederation of OpenOffice.org and a founding partner at the Ars Aperta Consulting Group.


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This is also worth a read:

Hula - Novell = open source project + common sense

 

Do note that Hula, although started out by Novell and released as opensource, is directly parallel to its existing GroupWise product. And the lessons learned from Hula are now implemented in GroupWise which by the way runs on Linux, Windows and Netware. So it is just common sense to stop parallelizing product development and concentrate on a making a single product improve. Who knows, it might open its GroupWise product line.

Bottom line, Hula is still alive, but now financial backing from Novell. But Hula is still alive and kicking. This is plain commonsense, just like any opensource author would surrender supporting a project and letter another take over the development.

A Patent war with Novell will be costlier to Microsoft

 
Quote:

Let it be a lesson to any other "value-added" commercial Linux company. This one's gona be costly to all but Microsoft.

A patent war with Novell will be a lot more costly to MSFT than to NOVL. Just imagine NOVL brandishing its patents on authentication, network, etc.. and I could picture MSFT shuddering. Why? Its because MSFT has done what it does ever since the Apple incident -- pirate unique technologies and implements them as its own. Good thing for MSFT when NOVL did not chase MSFT regarding it mimicking NDS and made it into AD. Good thing that Sybase did not go after MSFT regarding MSFT copying ASE/isql into MSSQL. Add to that the myriad of network technologies that were built by NOVL and being used by MSFT.

MSFT became what it is out of sheer arrogance from what it did not really develop. Remember DOS? Originally QDOS. Windows? Came right out underneath of Apple's nose. GUI? borrowed originally from Xerox. Do I need to mention some more 'stolen' technologies?

It seems as though MSFT is behaving as though it is the original owner to defray attention from the original owner. And once the original tech owner begins to move its weight against MSFT, it brandishes its hefty pockets and offers some sort of 'appeasement deal'.

If indeed NOVL has this 'cunning plan' which I too have noticed might be, then MSFT might be taking a hike in a few years.

You are so uniformed

 

If you simply would get informed, you would find that Charles did his due diligence and is RIGHT ON THE MONEY. The author "gets it" and understands how this is a HUGE win for open source of which Linux is a very small part of in the real world.

Go ahead, boycott Novell. Enjoy your cave that you live in.

Re: You are so uniformed

 
Anonymous wrote:

If you simply would get informed, you would find that Charles did his due diligence

Where's the evidence for that? And what exactly should we get informed on exactly, because the article is full of hot air?

Anonymous wrote:

The author "gets it" and understands how this is a HUGE win for open source of which Linux is a very small part of in the real world.

How is it a huge win for open source? Oh, and if you're pretending that there's a business world outside of the open source world that Novell is living in here, don't bother. In Novell's case, it's a world with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

Since Hovsepian himself has admitted that Microsoft are taking an awful lot of business away from Novell, you give me one good reason why Microsoft took part in this deal and paid the money that benefits Novell. That's right. Microsoft payed $300 million so Novell would tie themselves in knots expecting 'interoperability', or something, and then go away and die, and they got to send out some nice FUD to everyone and letters to Novell's customers saying that Novell and Linux infringes on Microsoft's IP. But don't worry - we won't sue you! Novell is also paying royalties to Microsoft on SLES.

Yer, fantastic business deal that was. *rolls eyes*

Anonymous wrote:

Go ahead, boycott Novell. Enjoy your cave that you live in.

No one needs to. Their customers are doing that to them already in the form of lost deals, which Hovsepian himself has admitted.

Wheels within wheels...

 

For some reason I haven't seen anyone connect all the dots yet. What do the individual parties gain by this agreement? How does the history of the two orgs work into this deal?

Novell: gets a steady paycheck and support from the big boys on the block. In addition they secure their place as the lone survivor of the coming "Great Linux Purge". No one else will be allowed to continue once everything is in place. After Novell stomps SCO into the dirt MS simply takes everything else on the table and walks away.

Microsoft: having "funded" the now-failed SCO effort to undermine Linux, the next logical move is to simply buyout your enemy. Mr. Ballmer rattles his sabre with threats identical to SCO's, but he now has something SCO didn't. He now has an understanding with the one true owner of the UNIX family jewels. MS couldn't care less about anything Novell has but that set of folders proving they still possess the patents to UNIX. With billions in the bank it would be easy enough to get cozy with Novell, snap them up, and play it off as a move against Oracle. Then down the road start asserting that Linux unfairly, and illegally, takes advantage of what is now MS property.

At this point I will not exactly be shocked if there is a move to start all over again and pick-up where FreeBSD dropped off. Starting with the SysV/BSD base and porting everything to the only "liberated" branch of the UNIX tree. Sad ending, but then it has always been a shell game among titans. Fun while it lasted.

Occam's Razor says that Novell made a mistake

 

I see no evidence that the MS-Novell deal has any significant benefits to the Linux community. The idea that it is inconceivable that they could have made such and enormous mistake -- and therefore they didn't make an enormous mistake is a circular argument. What benefit could accrue to the Linux community? Clearing Patent-Bombs directed at Mono? Clearing Patent-Bombs directed at Samba? Somehow clearing patent-bombs directed at Linux itself? If so then how?

Clearly the deal was negotiated by people who didn't understand how betrayed the community would feel as a result of this deal. Novell saw the opportunity to make some serious cash and thought that whatever problems were created would blow-over. They miscalculated and will now pay the price unless they are able to expand patent-coverage to everyone and to do it perpetually. That is totally unlikely.

Sadly, even reverting the deal would not restore Novell's reputation.

It is all bull

 

I think you overestimate real impact of so called Linux "community" (which is actually bunch of communities tied together) over destiny of Novell. It is interesting that no one from this "community" actually cared about Novell - it got lot of PR hits in the past, no matter how good citizen they wanted to be - until now. RedHat still was recommended (I see, how everyone is still remembers Big Bad Rage over Fedora, RH does better than it was before, yeah right). In fact, opposition to my opinion is very small to this deal, but very loud (Perens (the same who leaded announcment about 200 patent violation in Linux) comes out as first). Even lot of Debian developers said it is fine.

Sorry, but I think after year, Novell will be still here, rest of community already would have been forgotten and forgiven this, GPLv3 still won't have any impact on this deal, and Microsoft will be toasted over Vista and Linux will continue to go on.

Maybe let's concentrate to migration problems, solutions, I mean real code, docs instead of bashing one community member who still provides lot of code to GPL projects.

Sorry guys to crash your dream "revenge geeks" world, but we still livin in real one, with practical gains or loses.

I guess that all this

I guess that all this article in the end wants to point out is that Novell may have not had inherently bad intentions by doing this, not that they didn't make a mistake. I agree that supposed good intentions don't make this mistake any less bad than it is, but at least we can maybe keep watching Novell calling it for and giving it a chance for a change.

This deal will be hurt by GPLv3 though because the patent covenant as it is will be made illegal over a significant portion of software Novell distributes which will almost certainly be licensed under GPLv3. In a way, even if Novell doesn't do a good job at fixing its mistake here, it will be forced to choose their side once GPLv3 comes into play.

you got it right

 

Daniel that's what I meant pretty much. Novell is a business. They don't think about community, they think about customers. They think about money. It does not mean they betray FOSS. It means that they were opportunistic, and made a mistake. Corporations make money. It's all what they are intended for. So as much as it is not a betrayal, it is a mistake, and at the same time a bet that could ultimately work...

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