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Microsoft, Linux and Patents

At http://www.no-lobbyists-as-such.com/ florian-mueller-blog/ballmer-linux/ (link dead, sorry) we're reminded that Microsoft wants Linux dead. Ballmer is once again making noise about patents.

Unfortunately, Microsoft likely does have patents it could use against Linux. IBM can probably be replied upon to fight back on the side of Linux with its own patents - supposedly they've called Microsoft patent bluffs in the past just by pointing out that they also have stacks of patents and idle lawyers ready to look for violations by Windows code. However, Microsoft might now be willing to risk the battle.

Microsoft is not in a happy place right now. Vista is delayed, and both Apple and Linux are gnawing at its toes. The increasing interest in virtualization and particularly in package/OS bundling like VMware Player is a bumpy road for Microsoft because of OS licensing. Microsoft doesn't want its OS sales pirated, but it doesn't want to miss out on that market either. Linux apps can be shipped with a free OS; Microsoft apps cannot.

If Microsoft could control the VM machine itself, they could much more easily deal with the OS licensing problem. However, their product hasn't competed well against VMware and a promised upgrade has been delayed yet again.

Microsoft's last patent skirmish over FAT filesystems didn't end well for them, at least for now. But money talks, as we all know, and Microsoft can talk a lot more loudly than most of us. The FAT patent actually illustrates why Microsoft may be able to do real damage to Linux: a lot of what makes Linux viable as an alternative OS is its ability to interoperate with Microsoft products and other devices that follow Micrsoft standards. When you seek compatability and familarity, you are bound to brush the line.

Some say this is all just empty threats, and they could be right. But people don't usually make threats unless they feel some need to do so. Microsoft is threatened by Linux, and could carry through with patent atacks. Just because its been all noise in the past doesn't mean they'll never play this hand. Or they might do something else entirely. A feint with patents could be a deliberate distraction to cover their real intent.

Whatever Ballmer means or doesn't mean, it's unlikely that Microsoft is going to stand idly and watch Linux siphon away important business. We of course hope that they remain impotent or distracted until it is too late.

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