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What the Microsoft/Xandros deal means for Linux


Microsoft and Linux distributor Xandros on June 4 signed a broad set of collaboration and patent agreements that reminded many of the November 2006 Microsoft/Novell partnership. What do analysts and other Linux vendors think this new deal means for Linux?

While the FSF (Free Software Foundation) has tried to block such patent deals with the latest version of the GPLv3, Microsoft and Xandros didn’t let that legal objective stop them.

Now that the deal is in place, the question is, “What to make of it?”

We do know that the partnership has not drawn even a tenth of the criticism that the Novell/Microsoft patent partnership drew. Nonetheless, some other Linux vendors have little good to say about the new Xandros partnership.

Leading that side of the debate is Warren Woodford, president and founder of MEPIS, a well-regarded Ubuntu-based desktop Linux distribution. Woodford launched his attack on the deal quietly, “I believe that Xandros can do an excellent job of representing Microsoft’s interests in the Linux market. And I’m sure that the Xandros VCs are happy with the deal they made with Microsoft.”

Warming up to his theme, Woodford continued, “So far Microsoft hasn’t revealed any legitimate claims of intellectual property infringement. Their strategy appears to be to coerce weak players in the Open Source space to fold. This is reminiscent of the play made by SCO a few years ago, which some say was financed by Microsoft. Maybe that was just their trial run.”

Then, he launches his main assault on the partnership, “I’m reminded of Neville Chamberlain waiving his agreement with Hitler in the air and declaring peace in his time. Linux vendors should be reminded that, if you give your lunch money to a bully, the bully does not go away. Who will have the cohones to just say no? The Linux community may not like the answer, but the only name that comes to mind is — Larry Ellison.”

A Red Hat representative took a far more neutral stance. She said simply, “The recent Microsoft open source deal is one for which we have only seen the carefully crafted press releases of the deal proponents. As such, we are not in a position to meaningfully comment.”

Linspire’s president, Kevin Carmony, actually approves of the deal. Carmony said, “Since November of last year, Linspire has been asked a lot about the Microsoft/Novell deal. Many of our users, particular our enterprise customers and OEMs, have asked us about it. If we’re getting asked about it, I’m sure Xandros was as well, so I can understand why they approached Microsoft to work with them and entered into the agreement.”

“As long as no one is pointing a gun at anyone’s head to buy or not buy something, I have no problem with it. It’s just another choice people should be free to make,” continued Carmony. “It would be hypocritical of me to say Xandros shouldn’t be able to work with Microsoft, when Linspire offers options from dozens of proprietary companies every day (DVD software, video drivers, mp3 support, Quick Time, commercial games, etc.). Choice is rarely a bad thing.”

“I’m sure Xandros will lose some die-hard open source supporters (I took a peek at their forums, ouch), but I have a feeling they will more than make up for that with enterprise customers who have nothing against Microsoft and want to see more interoperability between Linux and Windows,” Carmony said.

“Bottom line, I think this was a smart move on their part, even though many in ‘the community’ won’t understand that, at least not right away,” Carmony added.

In an interview with Duncan McLeod of the Financial Mail, a South African business magazine, the CEO of Canonical and Ubuntu’s chief supporter, Mark Shuttleworth, compared Microsoft’s patents deals to racketeering.

“Microsoft is asking people to pay them for patents, but they won’t say which ones. If a guy walks into a shop and says: ‘It’s an unsafe neighborhood, why don’t you pay me 20 bucks and I’ll make sure you’re okay,’ that’s illegal. It’s racketeering. What Microsoft is doing with intellectual property is exactly the same. It’s a great company and I have great admiration for it, but this was not a well considered position,” said Shuttleworth.

If Microsoft drops its hostile patent position, however, Shuttleworth continued, “I’d love to work with Microsoft. It’s not an evil empire. It’s just a company that is efficiently grounded in the 1980s.”

For the time being, though, as Dan Kusnetzky, principal analyst at Kusnetzky Group, a technology research and marketing company, noted, it’s the same old Microsoft.

“Microsoft appears to be targeting smaller, and thus, more vulnerable members of the Linux community,” Kusnetzky said. “These companies simply don’t have the resources to [be] engaged in the long, expensive process of litigation regardless of the facts. The decision-makers in Xandros are likely to have sized the costs of litigation and compared those to signing a license agreement and decided that the most responsible action to take for their shareholders was to sign an agreement.”

“Others,” Kusnetzky continued, “who have more resources might see this as capitulation and setting a bad precedent. We all need to see what players like Red Hat, Oracle, IBM, HP and others are going to do.”

That said, “Microsoft is approaching this far more intelligently than did the SCO Group,” he added. “The SCO Group took on IBM before it had set a precedent. Then it took on its own customers. Microsoft is going after the smallest Linux suppliers and trying to build some form of momentum going in the direction it would like the market to take.”

Gordon Haff, senior analyst for research house Illuminata, agrees that Microsoft seems to be targeting smaller Linux companies. Haff also added that, “It’s hard to know what exactly went down here given the scarcity of details. Two facts are indisputable: Xandros is a tiny Linux player and Microsoft has a deep interest in generating momentum (or at least the appearance of same) for its patent indemnification initiative. Taken together, it wouldn’t be unreasonable that this is a Microsoft PR move more than anything else.”

Raven Zachary, research director for open source at The 451 Group, also doesn’t see the Xandros deal as being that important in the greater scheme of things. “While there are similarities between the deals that Microsoft has made with Novell and Xandros concerning Linux, the collaboration agreement between Microsoft and Novell is far more significant, both in terms of impact to the market, and commercial opportunity,” said Zachary.

As you can see, the opinions about this partnership range all over the map. Some think that it’s a big deal; some see it as barely more than a public relations move. Some believe it to be a deal with the Evil Empire; others — reading between the lines — wouldn’t mind making their own Microsoft partnerships. At this point, as Haff observed, we really don’t know enough to make hard conclusions on what this latest Microsoft/Linux vendor partnership means.

A version of this story first appeared in

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