Friday, November 03, 2006

Microsoft and Novell

I've been sick the past few days, but not so sick as to have missed the Microsoft and Novell detente that took place. The one where Microsoft and Novell agreed to cooperate. Where Microsoft agreed to support Novell. All sorts of reasons were given, and you can read about them just about everywhere. So in the interests of adding One More Opinion (OMO), I'll throw in my two cents.

SCOG vs IBM

In case you haven't noticed it, the three-year-old case continues to drag on and on. And slowly but surely SCOG (SCO Group, formerly known as Caldera) has had, effectively, all its evidence and claims debunked, one by one. It's now obvious to everyone who has bothered to follow that SCOG was in it as a shakedown of IBM. And IBM said no. So over the past three years IBM has systematically demolished every argument SCOG has presented, and in the process has slowly pulled Linux from under the cloud of 'infringment' of SCOG's supposed 'intellectual property' that it supposedly purchased from Novell. I won't go into details of all of this; you can get your fill of facts at Groklaw, if you can ignore Pamela Jone's bias long enough to do so.

Microsoft, sitting silently on the sidelines of the case, fighting Linux on other fronts (servers and embedded devices are two hot areas), was watching SCOG slowly being crushed. And this was dangerous to Microsoft because it would put Microsoft's software patent portfolio at great risk. Keep in mind that IBM is after more than just getting rid of the SCOG nuisance. If IBM succeeds in the lawsuit (and there is no reason to believe it won't), then nearly every idea embodied in Linux will be considered clean and unencumbered. Keep in mind that Unix is the predecessor not only of Linux and the BSDs but of just about every other operating system out there, including Windows. It embodies ideas and concepts that many, having forgotten the history of Unix, would like to claim as their own. It was Microsoft that first created and marketed Xenix before selling it to Santa Cruz Operations, the old SCO. Unix itself has roots that go back to Multics and other operating system concepts of the early 60's. I believe Microsoft's entire software patent foundation is at risk, and Microsoft is extremely risk averse, especially any risk to Windows and Office. If Linux is proven clean and unimpeachable, then Microsoft has no way to formally launch a lawsuit against any user or vendor of Linux for infringement. There is none.

Novell as a poor steward

Novell is a sick company, a faded image of past glory when it marketed NetWare and was king of the NOS hill. In the 80's Novell sold NetWare and network interface cards from 3Com with its own brand on them. Then Microsoft recognized networking as the next important front and started to chip away at Novell's dominance in PC networking. It opened the battle with Windows for Workgroups, where Windows 3.11 was given the ability to create peer-to-peer networks. The next (and final) shot was with Windows NT 3.1. With a server release of Windows NT, Microsoft could offer a much cheaper alternative to NetWare for printer and file sharing, and that's pretty much what NetWare was being used for.

As NetWare usage shrank, Novell panicked and tried to counter Microsoft. They purchased Word Perfect and Quatro (a spread sheet) from dying Borland. That didn't work, so in the mid 90's they purchased Unix from a withering AT&T to create the Univell Labs and Common Unix for the x86. That was a disastrous move, so Novell sold its Unix business to old SCO in 1995.

Then, in 2003, to the surprise of many, Novell stepped back into Unix (like) operating systems and made the decision to go open standard and open platform. They purchased Suse, a German-based company selling Suse Linux world-wide. I use Suse, and have since 7.3 I was happy to see Novell purchase Suse and begin to put a professional polish on the distribution. I've always purchased a final copy of every version of Suse I've installed, if for no other reason than to support Linux with my wallet as well as my mouth. There really is no such thing as a free lunch, and if you want diversity, you have to invest in it. It doesn't just happen. But Novell has not been able to make the kind of money its investors wanted Novell to make with Linux, and I'm sure they put pressure on Novell management to 'do something'. After years of management turmoil over lackluster Novell earnings, this is the latest stab at 'doing something'.

The current stage

So now we have Microsoft attempting to extend control over Linux through it's new-found proxy, Novell. Microsoft has gotten Novell to tacitly agree that Linux is somehow infringing Microsoft's intellectual property, in spite of growing implicit evidence to the contrary in the SCOG vs IBM case. One other fact to keep in mind, and one that I'm sure bothers Bill Gates in particular: if IBM comes out a winner (and it will), then IBM will be the 800 lb gorilla in the Linux market, having gone the distance to put SCOG and others like it in the dustbin of history. Novell is Microsoft's hedge against that future success, and against its competitor, IBM.

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