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Red Hat, Microsoft talk Tux


We knew that last year Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik held talks with Microsoft concerning a patent deal. Once Microsoft and Novell signed an agreement with Novell, those talks were history. In fact, Red Hat made a point of spitting on the Microsoft/Novell deal.

That was then. This is now.

On July 3, according to Paul Cormier, Red Hat’s executive VP of engineering, said that Red Hat wants to work with the Microsoft to improve Linux/Windows interoperability. “I want to talk to the folks at Microsoft about our two operating systems and how we can work together to solve real customer problems without attaching any unrelated strings, such as intellectual property,” Cormier told Peter Galli of eWEEK.

Patent agreements, however, won’t be on the table, as far as Red Hat is concerned.

Microsoft officials, though, don’t see it that way. They say that the issues of interoperability and IP (intellectual property) are not completely separate, and have to be considered together.

Bob Muglia, Microsoft’s senior VP for server and tools said, “In terms of helping to drive conversations with those guys [Red Hat], we’re open to talking to them about interoperability, we’re always open to talking about this.”

“But,” Muglia continued, “It is necessary to have a conversation about intellectual property when it comes to open source, and you can’t just sit back and talk about interoperability for interoperability’s sake without fully solving the customer issue. Unless you actually address the issues around IP you haven’t fully solved the customer’s interoperability problem,”

While the two sides are still disagreeing about this fundamental issue, they are also clearly still interested in working out some kind of deal. Muglia said Microsoft’s customers want better Linux interoperability and support with Red Hat. What he’s telling customers now is, “our message was really very simple: ‘go and talk to Red Hat, because we very much would like to do that.”

Some of you may be shocked by Red Hat and Microsoft even considering working together. I’m not.

When Reuters asked Szulik recently if Red Hat was in negotiations with Microsoft about a patent agreement, he gave that always interesting answer, “I can’t answer the question.”

That was a red flag if I ever saw one. And then, when Red Hat’s official PR people didn’t have anything to say to me, I knew something was up.

Now, between Szulik’s comment and today’s news, I think that Microsoft and Red Hat aren’t just talking about talking; they’re already trying to hammer out a deal. I’d also be willing to bet that they’ll come up with a partnership that does address IP as well as interoperability issues.

At this point, however, even though it won’t be adopted by Linux, the GPLv3 will cover enough important bits and pieces of a Linux distribution that it will be impossible for Microsoft and Red Hat to craft a deal like the Microsoft/Novell patent deal.

One way or the other, some sop will be given to Microsoft for its eternally vague IP claims, and the two companies will work together on interoperability issues. These will no doubt include Open XML/ODF document format translators and virtualization and network administration tools.

Why is Red Hat doing this?

I already gave my general answers for why Linux companies want to partner with Microsoft. To sum it up: Microsoft interoperability makes business sense. Whether it’s being able to watch a Windows Media Video with Totem, or being able to integrate RHEL 5 (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) servers into an AD (Active Directory) network, both individual users and Fortune 500 CIOs want easy-to-use and easy-to-manage Linux and Windows computers.

A few weeks back, I predicted that Ubuntu would be the next Linux to follow in the footsteps of Novell, Xandros, and Linspire in partnering with Microsoft. Now, it looks like it will be Red Hat.

I’ll note in passing, however, that while Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical Ltd., the company behind Ubuntu, categorically ruled out making a patent deal with Microsoft, he didn’t, in his words, “rule out any collaboration with them, in the event that they adopt a position of constructive engagement with the free software community.”

Doesn’t that sound like Red Hat’s position to you? It does to me. The big difference is that in Red Hat’s case, we now know that they are at least talking about talking. Hmmm… Who knows, maybe Ubuntu will be next after all.

By this time next year, I predict that there will not be any major Linux company or distribution, except for Debian, that won’t have some kind of Microsoft partnership in place. If Red Hat makes a deal — and I’m sure they will — then I can’t see any of the remaining major Linux distributors holding out.

A version of this story first appeared in Linux-Watch.

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