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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

Actually, I prefer

 

Actually, I prefer webservices served from a bunker with a backup generator and a backup-backup generator over a box you can buy and take home... But there must be some sort of contract that makes sure I can always get my data back to my home computer.

Even if I'm right about mono

 

Even if I'm right about mono and moonlight not being dangerous by themselves, I still would prefer not to have them on my system. Who needs yet another VM and set of languages and libraries and whatnot that don't really add anything useful? Wasting disk space and adding bugs (all code has bugs) for no good reason? No thanks!

Well then you can pay a

Well then you can pay a certain fee to get either your box or their box hosted in that bunker, but leaving the actual web service significantly under your control. They'd basically be just the host who wouldn't really care about what kind of data you're hosting. This may be similar in some ways to the Google-like SaaS, but it's not quite it.

Some RMS feedback on .NET and Java

 

RMS seams to agree with the below classification as Free and Non-Free Software:

http://lists.gnu.org/archive/html/gnuherds-app-dev/2007-09/msg00045.html

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