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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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Comments

Sea-change at Microsoft

 

There is a must read article at http://www.cio.com/archive/111506/fea_vista.html that may show Microsoft is trying to change at least from the top executive standpoint.

Quick Background: Microsoft is loosing all but the US Market, the only one really vertical where they can make a buck. 50% of Europe business have no intention to migrate to Vista. Germany and France are Linux strong. The UK is the only Microsoft Island. Asia, the future, (specifically China)will not adopt Vista either. In fact they are not even complying w/Linux standards and may fork Red Flag. Microsoft realizes that the US Market has limits even if they capture the 30% or so pirated copies.

This article talks about the Microsoft management extending the olive branch. Their new direction is integration of heterogeneous environments including Linux. The underlings at Microsoft may not have got the message yet but there may be a sea-change happening and someone should get this article to the open source powers to be. I'm not saying drop the guard. All I am saying is it may be time to just listen and study their their action. Novell may be on to something and could be the gateway for Linux. READ THE ARTICLE!

Yes, Hula IS dead.

 

Hula was an abandonware/vaporware project from the very beginning. There was a lot of Ximian-based hype pushed into it, and they made a lot of noise, because they were basically trying to have an answer to Kolab, which they felt was a KDE-backed project, so they wanted one to associate with GNOME. Ximian have always been fond of the "Not Invented Here" game.

If you need something like Hula, what you really ought to try is Citadel [ http://www.citadel.org ]. Citadel is a mature, stable, powerful, and flexible open source groupware platform. Citadel delivers what Hula only talked about.

 

Its great to read that finally the true owner of UNIX has been decide and its Novell who better SCO had plans to put all Linux user on notice to pay the bogus fees, that SCO will have to return to Novell if the CEO of SCO is smart they give over the keys and give in thier notice.

Beware the last sting of a

 

Beware the last sting of a dying wasp...

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