Nov 2, 2006
As I sit in my hotel room at a California education technology conference, where I have been presenting and promoting open technology use in K-12 environments, it is difficult to quantify the shock of the recent announcement by Novell that they are, for all intents and purposes, partnering with Microsoft. While most commentary thus far has spun the deal as some sort of validation that Microsoft is finally recognizing the viability of Linux and OSS in the marketplace, or that this is some sort of response to Oracle's Red Hat Rip Off, I see this as a new threat to open source of a greater magnitude than the community has ever seen.

To understand my concern, you have to believe, as I do, that anything that reduces competition reduces choice, and ultimately hurts everyone. Consider the force of Novell's patents in the industry as a whole - their mere existence, alongside Novell's promises to protect the open source community from patent threats has undoubtedly bolstered the confidence of open source developers and vendors, as Novell has, up until now been "on their side." Now, Novell and the combined weight of its patents are behind the company to whom the success of open source is the greatest threat. This will undoubtedly influence corporate customers who are interested in and/or using Linux to make sure that their Linux distribution of choice is Suse Linux if, for no other reason than to protect themselves from potential litigation. As Ballmer said, "let's get you a version of Linux that protects our (Microsoft's) intellectual property."

Worse yet, so long as Microsoft is promoting the use of Suse Linux, Novell has a vested interest in supporting Microsoft's perspectives in the marketplace. You'll notice that during the press conference, all parties were extremely careful to specify that there would be no IP lawsuits against individual "non-commercial" open source developers. In other words, "so long as you aren't making money and are making sure your code is included in Suse, you're OK."

Of course, if you're Red Hat, or Linspire, or Oracle, or any commercial entity who is or will actively contribute code to Linux and open source software, you are now under new threat from both Microsoft and Novell. At the very least, you must commit to making sure that your code contains any necessary modifications to compile and run properly on Suse, as well as actively pursue inclusion in Suse's codebase, or risk the threat of legal action. But be careful that neither one (Novell or Microsoft) sees you as competition, or they might just decide to come after you with their patent portfolios.

Obviously, this is the biggest threat to Red Hat. All feelings aside, it is difficult to imagine the success of Linux in the enterprise without the contributions of Red Hat. Unlike Novell, Red Hat has expressed a consistent commitment to open source, and the ideals of the open source community, and their business practices have reflected it. For example, the open source community has long needed an enterprise class directory server to round out its feature set. Novell could have easily open sourced Novell Directory Services (NDS) to fulfill this need, but instead kept their directory closed, choosing to open source a few minor applications that had little impact on their bottom line (iFolder and NetMail come to mind.) Imagine the impact an open sourced NDS might have had on the open enterprise. Even the most faithful Novell supporter would have to admit that Novell has been less than generous when it comes to the open source community.

Red Hat, on the other hand, with every action, has supported the community. Consider examples such as Red Hat's Global File System (GFS,) Red Hat/Fedora Directory Server (formerly SunOne,) and more recently JBoss and their contributions to the management of virtualized systems, and you can clearly see the difference. While Red Hat's efforts have continually improved the environment, Novell has primarily endeavored to wring as much profit out of open source as it possibly can.

The biggest benefactor of this deal is Novell, not the open source community or "the customer" as Novell's Hovsepian and the spin doctors would have us believe, and we as a community should stand against it. Perhaps the best thing for Novell would be for this to backfire in a big way, in the hope that such a result would inspire them to become truly committed to open source.


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