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Is .NET on GNU/Linux a Trojan Horse?

"Don't talk about Microsoft" is a meme some people would gladly adopt for it is true that many in the Free Software community often appear obsessed with what Microsoft does and how could that be a part of a plan to hurt Free Software and GNU/Linux specifically. However, there are certain facts that can't be validly denied; Microsoft has a reputation of being quite a devious "competitor", if we can even fairly attribute such a noble term to them. They simply shown that they will use every trick in the book, regardless even of legality or ethics, to stay on the top. It is not the only company that finds it in their interest to bury the Free Software revolution, but it is the most prominent and probably the most capable one.

What else needs to be said, really? Does that justify talking about Microsoft? I think so, but not with obsession—but with a critical eye which would not hesitate to focus on something more valuable than Microsoft itself when it gets a chance, but would still not ignore when Microsoft's actions do demand focus.

This might, yet again, be the time for critical observation of their latest actions. Microsoft announced that it will work with Novell to develop the "Open Source" version of Silverlight under the Moonlight project. Some see this as a good sign with regards to Microsoft changing its face towards the GNU/Linux community and an indication that there may be a rift in the company between the Free Software supporters and the supporters of the old strategy. Ars Technica featured an article which quotes Miguel De Icaza, Mono project leader, portraying this as a "shift of tectonic proportions" basing on that a quite optimistic analysis of what may be happening with Microsoft.

Is Microsoft really softening up? Is there a community within Microsoft which genuinely believes that collaborating with Free Software is a good thing? I don't have so much doubt in that, but unfortunately I do have my doubts about that still reflecting the official current strategy of Microsoft as a whole, or as represented by its leadership. The thing is, Microsoft's management with Steve Ballmer basically at the top does not seem to be very open minded towards Free Software collaboration as much towards spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt through patent threats while trying to undermine Free Software in any way possible.

My theory, and this is just a one theory of what could actually be happening, is that Microsoft's management is aware that a certain part of its company is genuinely warmed up for cooperation with Free Software and simply does not want to stop this kind of mood from developing. Rather it may want to use this as a tool, a pawn, in a larger strategy, as a way to fool as many people as possible into thinking that because there is a part of Microsoft that loves Free Software, Microsoft itself and its management loves Free Software too. Deception at its best, because they, that being Ballmer and company, the management, don't even have to try—the genuine supporters of cooperation with Free Software within their company are doing all the job by themselves, without realizing perhaps that the management they work for is using their good will for ill intents.

Roy Schestowitz from the Boycott Novell website certainly agrees that there is something fishy going on. In particular the current focus is at this ever increasing mix up of Microsoft's .NET technology and GNU/Linux mostly through the Mono project with the Silverlight case being the latest and possibly brightest of examples. At first I was skeptical towards assertions that Mono could be all that much hurtful towards the Free Software community as long as it actually is under Free Software licenses. But perhaps I believed too much into the power of a license.

I am beginning to reconsider my position.

According to Roy's post Microsoft may be going much deeper with their Novell strategy than many are currently realizing (including perhaps significant parts of Novell as well) and definitely deeper than they go with any of the other partnerships they made with GNU/Linux distributors recently. Apparently, Novell may be The Choice for Microsoft as something they can use as a "trojan horse" working against the interests of the Free Software community while appearing to be something new and good, hence the deception. As wikipedia puts it, "a Trojan horse is a program that installs malicious software while under the guise of doing something else".

You may be asking yourself the same question that I was asking; How exactly is what Microsoft is doing with Novell and Mono malicious? How can this really hurt Free Software? That's what I actually asked in this LXer.com thread.

There were two basic propositions in my mind on how could they hurt Free Software.

  • 1. Copyright threat? -- If Mono stuff is under a Free Software license, once Microsoft or Novell change the licensing terms over the Free .NET implementation we can just fork away. This is where my trust into Free Software licenses comes into play.
  • 2. Software patents threat? -- Nothing new, there is patent saber rattling already and no software is safe from patents anyway.

We rarely give credit to the wit and wakefulness of the LXer community. They gave some very interesting responses so let this be their moment to shine. Here are a few very interesting responses which portray a quite vivid picture of what may be happening, one which certainly does help answer the above questions.

Herzeleid wrote:

The totally perfect situation for microsoft is this: you get linux users to buy into the silverlight hype, and using all of your usual dirty tricks (bribes, threats, massive blaring hype), you get content providers to switch to silverlight, and reduce flash market share, just as happened with ie against netscape.

Now, you change the terms—and whoops! surprise, surprise, linux is no longer supported, so sorry. But you offer linux users a 10% discount to buy windoze and gain the ability to experience the windoze-only flash-replacement.

At this point we can fork all we want, and it's about as much use as polishing the brass on a sinking ship. Microsoft has just made incompatible changes in the interface, pressured/enticed/bribed key sites hosting ms-centric content to upgrade, and the old linux version is now simply irrelevant.

Abe wrote:

I just want to add to what Herzeleid clearly said and described.

Contamination of the mind, which is traditionally called marketing, is far more dangerous than any code contamination.

That is how MS has been winning for a long time.

So the answer to our question NO 1 is: Smart marketing. In this hypothetical future in which .NET is widely adopted Microsoft or Novell as the license holders of .NET can change the license to a proprietary one. "Big deal, we can fork", was our proposed answer. But, we can fork all we want, but if the attention of the market and the industry is on the official .NET implementation who would care for our fork? Again, Microsoft and its allies can win this one by smart and strong marketing.

Sander_Marechal wrote:

What I fear is that a lot more Microsoft technology besides the published/open .net standard is appearing in Mono and Moonlight. So far Microsoft has been huffing with patents that are all on open specs, or well known, or on stuff that shouldn't have been patented in the first place. I.e. any patent suit they throw at us will not stick.

Perhaps Microsoft has realized that, so they are now luring us into technology for which they *do* have valid patents. Thanks to the MS-Novell deal, there is a lot of technology that Miguel de Icaza can legally implement in Mono/Moonlight but which is not part of the open standards and which cannot safely be redistributed outside of Novell (sans a patent protection racket).

So answer to our question NO 2 is: Provide a sufficient amount of track record and evidence to validate potential litigation against non-allied GNU/Linux distributors that use their (Microsoft/Novell) .NET/Mono. As they continue to work together on this technology sharing of patents between the two is more and more likely. With time this may offer a sufficient amount of validity towards a claim that Mono uses Microsoft's patents and that hence no others but Novell (and other allies) are allowed to use Mono in their distributions.

And yet, Mono based applications have already entered GNOME, a project being used in practically all major GNU/Linux distros.

This issue becomes even more interesting when you consider some of the recent statements made by the Mono project leader Miguel De Icaza regarding the use of Microsoft's patents in Mono, from this interesting conversation.

When Eduardo Robles Elvira asked:

Eduardo Robles Elvira wrote:

What about microsoft patents? If I create my own linux distro or I use a distro that is not mainstream or just doesn't have a deal with the daemon.. err Microsoft.. like Novell has.. Will I have to suffer the shadow of Microsoft patents over Silverlight when using or developing Moonlight?

Miguel's answer was:

Miguel De Icaza wrote:

Not as long as you get/download Moonlight from Novell which will include patent coverage.

Since this statement obviously implies that you are not legally safe if you get Moonlight from someone other than Novell the questions Martin S. later in the conversation expressed do not surprise.

Martin S. wrote:

1) You're saying that people _will_ have patent problems - i.e.
Moonlight "infringes" MS patents and doesn't work around them. Even
though Novell promised never to ship code that infringes MS patents -
but always avoid them one way or another.

2) You're saying other distributors can't ship Moonlight legally (in
the US) because of patent issues. Making Moonlight effectively non-
free (as in freedom).

Miguel's response was lengthy and you can read it in whole on the linked thread, but what can easily be gathered from it is his reliance on the argument that Free Software advocates usually use against the existence of software patents; that you cannot be certain for any program that it does not infringe on a certain patent and that most programs actually do. It's not hard to conclude that if you want to be sure that Microsoft's patents aren't used in Mono, you wont get such assurance from Miguel De Icaza. The question remains, is any inclusion of Microsoft's patents in Mono going to be deliberate or accidental (due to the nature of software patents)?

Considering what we have observed above, it seems that the answer to that question might not even matter so much. Doubt alone is enough for Microsoft while its strengthening involvement with Mono might just, in minds of many, turn this doubt into hard evidence supporting the fact that Microsoft owns sufficient parts of Mono for it to legally bar everyone else but its allies from using it.

Note: I would admit that there is an amount of speculation in this article and perhaps the wider sources it relies on, so I will not offer this as my final conclusion on this issue, but rather as a part of a larger conversation that will possibly alter even my own opinions. An interesting question we can ask is why does this conversation even exist? Perhaps the very existence of this conversation provides a hint towards its real cause and the answer to the question of whether the suspicions expressed are well founded or not. That thought may serve to entice a more intelligent consideration of the issue than an outright dismissal may be.

Thank you

Danijel Orsolic

Comments

I think we might be looking

 

I think we might be looking at this from the wrong perspective.

Has anyone noticed that microsoft are moving their flagship brand (visual pun intended) "windows" from operating systems to webservices? Why would they do that?

- they know that because of the web, operating systems soon won't matter much anymore, so better move a strong brand to something that does matter
- they know that web apps can lock users in much more effectively than PC software can, because the user data will be on microsoft servers. Hack your own hardware and software as much as you like, you're not getting control over your own data.

Of course microsoft would prefer that you pay for vista instead of using a Free operating system, but if you're going to let yourself be locked in their web apps, that's good enough too.

To make the user experience really "great", microsoft needs control over the design of the software that does the user interface stuff. They don't want to have to send feature requests for flash or contribute code to java... So they made silverlight to replace flash and .net to replace java. Moonlight and mono make it possible to lock users of Free operating systems in microsoft webservices.

Microsoft pretends to be interested in taking down Free software with their patents. They do this to keep the marketshare of vista as high as possible. But they know they can't kill Free software (and those patents aren't going to help against Free software developers in Europe anyway). Killing mono and moonlight on other platforms than "microsoft approved linux" will harm the future marketshare of microsoft webservices. They're not going to do that.

Mono and moonlight are not trojan horses. They can be used for FUD from both sides, but nothing more than that. However they are presents to microsoft that will help make naive users of Free operating systems accept the real trojan horse: the future "windows live".

By the way, don't you think "windows live" sounds a lot like "windows life"? Thats what they want: all your data, your life, so when you're nicely locked in they can start making you pay for living.

That's an interesting

That's an interesting analysis although it is going to be a long road for them to replace their OS as their primary cash cow with their web services platform so in the meantime they might want to have both of the options open hence pursuing a strategy which could result in both goals being achieved at the same time.

But in any case, as so far presented, the safest course of action for GNU/Linux distributors seems to be to stay away from Mono as much as possible, at least for now. Which is why it might be a good thing for GNOME to reconsider the inclusion of certain Mono powered applications. Or at least don't add any more of them.

This of course I do consider unfortunate. I tend to be the one to argue in favor of using a software technology despite potential patent encumbrance because you can't really be sure about any software anyway. At the same time though if we know there is an area of elevated risks it just seems prudent that if we can we use something else. It's the "choosing the lesser of two evils" kind of thing.

I agree their web services

 

I agree their web services aren't all that impressive yet, but...

I think in the not too far future desktop hardware will be so powerful it simply won't be possible to write a program that has fancier graphics than that hardware can handle. Experimental systems that do raytracing (the same high quality 3D as used in movies) in real time already exist.

At the same time internet connections are getting faster and faster, so if there is a program that is too heavy for this desktop hardware in something else than the GUI, it will usually be feasible to run this task on some server.

Microsoft can't slow down computers by writing poor code too much, because then Free sofware will too obviously be better. Think of the low hardware requirements of compiz/beryl on linux compared to windows vista. They can't let the difference grow too much.

What does that mean? It means sales of desktop systems will go down, and guess how most copies of ms windows are sold... I don't think they have a choice but to move to webservices (and the name ".net" is a big fat hint they are indeed planning to move in that direction).

Sure, it doesn't pay much yet (I guess the only source of revenue is advertisements?) but once they get enough locked in users, they can ask to be paid for every additional useful feature in quite the same way as what apple is doing with itunes ringtones.

Hmm, a Trojan Horse, let me

Hmm, a Trojan Horse, let me try and think about that. Mono is Free Software under the definition of the GPL which (hopefully) makes it impossible to be Trojan horse software in the same way as what infects many of the world's PCs e.g. the code itself is malicious. We are questioning here if the patent system and possible restrictions will become a problem which we do not currently see coming. I recall when talking to tbuitenh at FOSDEM'07 mentioning my worry about patents in Mono and his reply being (paraphrased) "everything is covered by patents, we shouldn't worry to much about them" (I apologise if this isn't totally correct - please correct me Taco!); thus patents may be a red herring especially with the rules in the EU and other parts of Europe. Also there is plenty of patented software in GNU/Linux, I believe most of this is due to people implementing stuff they don't know is patented and makes the patent problem not exclusive to free software .NET implementations.

Thus in the above generality I don't see it as a Trojan horse, however I think I should consider the fact Novell are basically the main people behind Mono, and has strong links to Microsoft via last year's patent deal. The deal gives the illusion that Mono does knowingly contain patent infringements (if it does or doesn't), which can cause fear, uncertainty and doubt within users and potential users (especially potential users in the public sector and private business). But this is a problem with the patent deal, not the software - it's the patent system which is broken, not necessarily the software.

Despite the above I can't say I'm very thrilled at having technology such as Silverlight on GNU/Linux as it's basically another 'Flash', which isn't software I really like, especially if it isn't free technology (Moonlight is only a runtime as as far as I know can't write Silverlight bling) - but this is going off topic slightly.

SaaS - Software as a Swindle

 

SaaS - Software as a Swindle
Swindle - Seductive Websites Inflicting Nasty Data Locks Everywhere

Whatever the pace of changeover from desktop to browser, corporates will try to dominate and lock in cashflows by locking in users. MS, Google, Apple, etc will all leverage what they have, each trying every trick in the book to tempt the unwary into their web, even locking devices to network systems like telcos - it's the "Intelligent Network" for slow learners.

I used to joke about night-clubs that it was free in but a fiver to get out. I can see it happening online in the future, free to store your data, but to get it out in ODF will be a 'value added service' with a price. Comical.

Their antics as usual elucidate where and how freedom is under threat, and define what is needed to preserve it. The links you posted before concerning keeping data free from lock-in are very interesting, and seem to be the way to go.

How about an online version of GNU EMACS?
We should expect that in a fortnight since the heavy lifting of having the idea is done, btw I choose to name it DEMACS.

I agree with past me

 
dylunio wrote:

I recall when talking to tbuitenh at FOSDEM'07 mentioning my worry about patents in Mono and his reply being (paraphrased) "everything is covered by patents, we shouldn't worry to much about them" (I apologise if this isn't totally correct - please correct me Taco!); thus patents may be a red herring especially with the rules in the EU and other parts of Europe. Also there is plenty of patented software in GNU/Linux, I believe most of this is due to people implementing stuff they don't know is patented and makes the patent problem not exclusive to free software .NET implementations.

I don't remember saying that, but I agree with my past self. Patents are like landmines, in theory almost every medium sized program could attract a lawsuit, in practice this rarely happens.

Of course by being an imitation of microsoft software, mono is a little more likely to infringe on ms patents than any random software, but the original is not exactly super-innovative. It could be described as an attempt to make a better java.

What about novell intentionally placing "mines" in mono? I don't think setting up this kind of traps is good for the reputation of a company, and unlike microsoft they are not rich or big enough to be able to afford that. They could even be sued for this and might just lose...

Also: if it becomes known novell gets paid by ms to plut traps in things they give away for free, what reason is there to believe they don't also put traps (perhaps of a different type) in what they sell? Which company would be suicidal enough to buy their products?

No, I don't think we should worry too much about microsoft patents. If we do worry about them, that most likely means we started believing FUD from microsoft!

On second thought, changing FUD from ms into FUD against one of their partners is a pretty neat idea. So, um, yeah. Don't use mono and moonlight, or Ballmer is going to sue you. And throw the witness stand at you.

I agree with past you, too

 
Quote:

No, I don't think we should worry too much about microsoft patents. If we do worry about them, that most likely means we started believing FUD from microsoft!

Yup.

So much energy wasted on so much paranoia.

The irony is this: If any FOSS project is likely to be safe from patent concerns, mono is it.

First, most of it is an implementation of ECMA standards. Anybody who has been paying attention would know that US and European authorities frown on somebody proposing a standard that can't be met without infringing its patents.

Second, the mono project pays careful attention to patent concerns. Their policy is to never knowingly include infringing code, and, if they discover infringing code to remove it.

Seems to me most FOSS projects don't pay that much attention.

It's OBVIOUSLY a trojan/trap.

 

It would be extremely naive to see .NET on Linux as anything less than a trojan horse. It's an obvious trap that too many people are more than willing to fall into. Microsoft's VP of Linux Annexation (Miguel de Icaza) is designing it that way.

Well, this just underscores

Well, this just underscores my overall dislike and distrust into complete web based environments replacing desktop applications. Sure, if the actual web service is something I run on my own server. But owned by Google, Microsoft, Apple? No thank you. I don't even have a Google email account or if I ever got one, well I don't use it at all. I host my own mail.

So this whole SaaS is exciting to me in only one possible way: Free Software as MY service to myself (and my family). Sticking out tongue

That aspect of SaaS is not deprived of a business model though. If companies could offer people home server boxes with various software for services included and made very easy to set up and use I believe that could sell nicely. It would be a box you bring home, plug in to electricity and via USB to your existing home computer and it would download and pop up an easy to use set up program which would set all kinds of personal web services for you, from your own self hosted email to an online desktop. The box would be hooked to your ADSL line so you can access these every time every where. It could even have an UPS built in to ensure greater uptime. Eye

dylunio wrote: I recall

dylunio wrote:

I recall when talking to tbuitenh at FOSDEM'07 mentioning my worry about patents in Mono and his reply being (paraphrased) "everything is covered by patents, we shouldn't worry to much about them"

Well in any case I would usually agree with past Taco here too. That's my "default" position. However I would still admit it to be a good idea to avoid what we can avoid, the areas where we do know risks are elevated. Because of the same reason I don't so much oppose the use of patented codecs in Free Software distros, but can understand the benefit of not including them by default. We know that these are patented and under risk so we try to minimize that risk.

With respect to what Taco and Dinotrac said (welcome aboard Dinotrac!), I would not oppose the idea that we have been affected by Microsoft's FUD, but whether we started actually believing it or not is another thing. Perhaps we have simply taken the hint at being more cautious and wakeful with regards to this issue. In that sense Microsoft's FUD did not weaken us, but made us stronger and more vigilant. Perhaps it is because of this increased vigilance that we are anticipating certain threats like the one described here.

At the end of the day, the warning shouts have been cast. Some will heed it as something prudent to follow up on and others will ignore it. Who was right of the two only time will show.

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