Microsoft upped the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) in the open source world with a carefully planned story given to Fortune magazine Monday in which their legal counsel revealed that Microsoft believes Linux and other open source software violate more than 200 of Microsoft's software patents.
As the article points out, the whole idea of software patents is a relative new one and there are likely thousands of bogus patents that will not stand up in court. In fact it's not that many years ago that the Bill Gates was talking about how software patents could be abused:
"If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today ...
The solution is patenting as much as we can. A future startup with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose. That price might be high. Established companies have an interest in excluding future competitors." Bill Gates, 1991
(That's one of the reasons we fought software patents in Europe with the www.nosoftwarepatents.com initiative. But I digress...)
The latest story is running like wildfire through the blogosphere about how Microsoft is the new SCO, how there's no beef in their story, Microsoft's engaging in bully tactics, they should innovate not litigate etc. Many in the open source community are up in arms about it. But all of this misses the point. Microsoft doesn't care whether developers get irked by any of this. Instead their goal is to create a chilling effect on software buyers in government and industry who may think twice before using open source software in case Microsoft sues them. In that regard, any press is good press for Microsoft since it creates confusion which can cause delays in the evolution of the market. This is a classic response to disruption in the marketplace.
But if Microsoft is so confident of their patents, then they should put their money where their mouth is and put the patent infringements on the table for all to see. Put up or shut up, as Larry Augustin has stated. I doubt they will. Because if Microsoft actually provides any real evidence of infringement, then the open source community can remedy the situation or fight the patents. Microsoft is a paper tiger here. The irony is that another approach that could be taken is that customers could just decide they've had enough of Microsoft's bullying and start to leave Windows in droves. Certainly there's not much compelling in Vista the latest release and if Microsoft is going to sue people, maybe it's going to provide an opportunity for Ubuntu, Red Hat and others to make some hay.
Microsoft's in a tough position. They're fighting a battle on two fronts (open source software, and online offerings from Google and others) and struggling mightily to determine how they will be relevent for the next 25 years. The irony is that Microsoft is occasionally a good partner in open source. They've worked with JBoss, Zend, MySQL and others. And Windows is a pretty good platform for development.
But Microsoft is schizophrenic in this regard. Despite the great progress by folks like Bill Hilf, the reality is that Microsoft's senior management is on the attack against open-source. In that regard, it's attacking a tidal wave of progress in the industry. Microsoft may as well be tilting at windmills. Open source is taking hold and growing at an accelerated rate, partly because Microsoft has such an insular culture that they can't conceive of why anyone would want to run anything but Windows. The only question is whether Microsoft will be relevant in an open source world, the way IBM, Oracle, Sun and others are. Or will they continue to fight against the trend, much like they tried to maintain a closed approach in face of open Internet standards. (Remember Microsoft's "Blackbird" or "Hailstorm" projects? Me neither.) Maybe Microsoft is destined to be the next DEC, a great company that ultimately missed the boat on massive changes in the industry.
The whole thing reminds me of The Onion's classic story "Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeroes." Now apparently it's gone from satire to strategy.
"Think of this as a partnership," Gates said. "Like the ones and zeroes of the binary code itself, we must all work together to make the promise of the computer revolution a reality. As the world's richest, most powerful software company, Microsoft is number one. And you, the millions of consumers who use our products, are the zeroes."
Here's a thought, Microsoft should patent the Blue Screen of Death --that's a Microsoft innovation after all.