Greeks bearing gifts (UPDATED)

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Here in the UK, there is a saying that was a quote from Virgil that was often quoted in the original Latin, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis", which is usually mistranslated into the phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts". It refers to the incident where the Greek troops hid inside a large wooden horse and gave it to the Trojans as a gift who promptly accepted it, then in the night the Greeks broke out of their hiding place, went to the city gates, and... Well, you probably know the rest. However, it is that phrase, or both of them in fact, that pass through my mind on seeing recent Microsoft and other corporate closed software companies’ press releases recently.

There are three that come to mind that have occurred recently...

Microsoft’s Sender-ID patent non-assertion

The first is Microsoft’s announcement of a Non Assert Pledge on their Sender-ID technology. Whatever you think of the technology itself, the pledge, on the face of it, sounds really good. That is, until you look at the details.

As far as I can tell, what Microsoft has said is that they will not assert any patents in Sender-ID unless you try and assert a patent of yours against Microsoft that it has allegedly infringed. Suddenly, I found myself thinking oo-er... Imagine that MS’s Sender-ID technology becomes standard, then imagine I innovate a fantastic new idea that warrants a patent and apply and get one. Then, later, Microsoft copies my idea and infringes on my IP, then if I try and sue Microsoft they will revoke permission to use Sender-ID—which would now be standard—and sue me back for that. I then have a choice of either letting Microsoft get away with “IP theft" or losing my ability to practically send and receive email. However, if Microsoft decide to sue me for any other patent, one that is not involved in Sender-ID, then I have nowhere to go and am in the swamp up to my neck, weighted down with stones, and with the alligators rapidly approaching. Well, it will feel as such anyway.

At this point, let me say I am aware that you probably don’t approve of software patents. And, to be honest, neither do I, and my preference would not be to apply for one. However, they are a fact. You may not approve of drunken drivers, but pretending they do not exist and not giving them a wide berth can be damaging to your live expectancy. The fact that I do not approve of software patents does not mean I will ignore the issues they present.

Going back to the Sender-ID, Microsoft, by so-called “giving away" the non-assertiveness, they improve their chances of having it adopted, and it appears they are giving us a gift. However, as far as I can see, by accepting this gift we are giving Microsoft the ability to run riot over all regarding patents while preventing anyone else from retaliating and using their portfolios to defend themselves. I hope the standards people will use an X-ray on that particular horse before letting it in.

UPDATE, 5-NOVEMBER-2006: Microsot's Non-Assertion pledge is not the monster described above I thought it was. According to their web page they will only assert the patent if they are attacked by a suit for the same technology. However, I still personally think Microsoft are promoting Sender-ID to control the technology more than to improve life for all, anything that helps stop spam I am for, but why did not Microsoft join with standards already in place (ie SPF)? There is obviously something in it for them for controlling this standard. Even though the Microsoft pledge was not as bad as I first thought (in fact seems it quite reasonable to me), I still am against letting the Sender-ID horse through the gates of the city.

Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux

When I first heard about Oracle’s GNU/Linux offering, my immediate reaction was: “What a stupid name to give it!". All software has bugs, and as soon as the first one was found in the distribution I expected the headline: “Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux breaks", and so reviews (1, 2) have not been that brilliant, but it’s early days yet. What worries me about this is not the quality of the software, but Oracle’s motives. In my view, it is obvious that Red Hat has upset Oracle—probably by buying JBoss—and that Oracle wants to harm them because of it. I don’t buy into their explanation that they want to improve quality of support through competition by providing another choice for customers. If they wanted to do that, they would have assembled their own distribution and tuned it for their needs, rather than adopt Red Hat’s one. They are out to poach Red Hat’s customers by offering the same service for half the price.

“Hang on a second...", I hear you cry, “same service for half the price? That is good, isn’t it?". My answer to that is “On the face of it yes, but lift up the tail and look inside.". Let me explain...

Oracle are primarily a closed software company that makes money selling licenses on closed software. Their traditional RDBMS market is being heavily attacked on two fronts. Firstly, by a range of free based products that include PostgreSQL and it’s derivatives for the scalable enterprise solutions, MySQL for the smaller web-based ones and Firebird for whoever requires that standard of technology. Secondly, it is being attacked on the closed software front by MS’s SQL-Server products. Oracle needs to diversify before it’s too late.

They’re not stupid, and diversifying they have been doing, largely into the application and middle-ware markets. However, they are going into an area populated by many. Oracle wanted JBoss (a player here) and Red Hat’s “pipping them at the post" and purchasing it themselves would not have played well with the board members. I think Oracle’s announcement is an attempt to harm Red Hat’s business rather than increase their own. It seems to me the announcement was designed to harm Red Hat’s stock price, which it succeeded in doing, and they are targeting Red Hat’s revenue stream with their marketing with little benefit to themselves. Very suspicious behavior in my opinion.

Oracle have an interesting relationship with the free software community. They have contributed to the Linux kernel amongst others, but only when such contributions have benefited themselves. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, many do the same. And the contributions are very welcome and benefit all, whatever the reasons behind them are.

They have purchased InnoDB, and no-one quite knows why (I guess Oracle do but they are not being clear on that). A theory is that they wanted to try and control the MySQL market, who use it as their main transactional back-end technology. If that was their motive, then they were not adequately advised, as InnoDB is free software which can be supported in one way or another by others. And, there is nothing stopping MySQL from developing another back-end, which is what they are doing.

Oracle like and use Linux, when I interviewed a rep there they said that its openness enabled them to examine the source code and see and fix kernel problems on their customers’ installations easily, improving “supportability" of their own software. However, some of their forays into free-software-land have lead me to question their motives. Are they attempting to be destructive at times? I honestly do not know. I am not saying there are commandos in the belly of their beast, I just think we should rattle it about to see if anything inside says “Ow!".

Microsoft’s agreement with Novell

Every business likes an edge—a unique point that separates them from the competition so that customers will choose them rather than someone else. I think this was Novell’s thinking in the Microsoft/Novell Agreement. The two major players in the GNU/Linux enterprise market are SUSE and Red Hat, and it makes sense for SUSE to find attractions that would make customers go to them rather than the other one. A non-assertive agreement is easy for a salesman to use, they would say something along the lines of “Microsoft have many software patents, we have an agreement with them that guarantees you will not be sued. However, if you choose the other guy...".

The question I am not convinced Novell have asked is “What is in it for Microsoft?". Or, if they have, they probably didn’t think the answer significant. But, in my opinion, the answer is very significant for those who wish for free and open software and standards.

Again, on the face of it, Microsoft seems to be giving GNU/Linux its blessing, but when I examine the points highlighted in the Joint letter to the Open Source Community, I find myself making the following observations:

  • Patent coverage: This gives general credence to Microsoft’s software patents that would not have existed before. It would be easier for them to use this weapon to put competitors out of business now. The concept of only protecting “Non-Commercial" developers seems to be suggesting that community GNU/Linux should be demoted to a hobbyist activity, like stamp collecting. Yeah right! Who does that benefit?
  • Virtualization/Virtualization Management: Microsoft are behind in this technology. Like all truly innovative advancements Gates and Ballmer were caught napping. The free offerings such as Xen, Linux-Vserver and even User Mode Linux are way ahead of the current Microsoft offerings. This agreement helps them catch up with little benefit to Novell and the free software community.
  • Office Open XML: Microsoft are losing their fight to keep their stranglehold on office document formats. They have rejected Open Document Format, or payed minimum lip-service to it, but, despite that, government departments and major companies are moving to it. In an attempt to combat this, they have created their competing format which, as far as I can see, is an XML-ization of their current proprietary format with a suspicious looking Non-Assertion Contract. If adopted its complexity will place control of this well in the Microsoft corner. I do not see the benefit to the free and open community in placing this in the product, all that does is lock out Kword, AbiWord and all the others from this so-called “interoperability". Surely, the correct thing to do is place Open Document support in Microsoft Office, but that would go against Microsoft’s strategy to control and extort.
  • Mono, and Samba: The patent agreement with these technologies look to me like scaremongering in an effort to get people to pay someone (Novell) for these products or risk litigation. If this was successful it could, in effect, close these products. What is the point of having the source if you could receive patent suits if you try and redistribute modified code? Although this is unlikely to happen, I want to ask what reason does Microsoft have in signing up to this other than in giving that scenario a go?

All in all, I think that not only should you look Microsoft’s gift horse in the mouth, but should cut off its head and throw a few grenades down its throat. After that, burn it!


Going back to the Virgil quote—“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis" is usually mistranslated, the actual translation is “I fear the Greeks even bringing gifts", a saying that I think is very relevant to closed software companies.

PS: I have nothing against the Greek people, it is just a saying and a particular historical reference, okay?



Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Very well thought out and I agree fully with your comments.
Microsoft is not going to give anything away unless theres mega dollars or power and control to them.
Unfortunately the modern technology war, is not fought with innovation but more so with lawyers, legal loop holes and backdoor agreements.
Unfortunately Microsoft is one of the companies that forces many limitations to modern technology rather than promote it.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I thoroughly enjoyed the article: M$ as the Golden Agamemnon and his hordes and Novell as the warning-uttering Laocoon ; most of all, the correct translation of the quote, which illustrates the use of ET as a replacement for ETIAM ( "even" ).
Hate to say there's a typo though in the original quote: it's ferentEs (male accusative plural, related to Danaos) , not ferentIs.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I concur.

To the learnt parent of this thread:
Ahh, at last! I found you! There are geeks proficient in the Classics!
The "Golden" Agamemnon and the "warning-uttering" Laocoon _and_ knowledge of Latin grammar.
Congrats, mate! ;-)

To other readers, who might find this helpful:
The quote is from Virgil's Aeneid, which is the story of Aeneas of Troy escaping his now burnt and sacked city to find a new home, that will become Rome. It is much like Homer's Odyssey, which is the story of Odysseus the King of Ithaca returning home after the expedition to Troy. Odysseus was he who devised the plan involving the wooden horse. Both stories follow what happened after the War of Troy, covered in Homer's Iliad. "Iliad" is the area where Troy stood.

To the author of the original article:
I am Greek and no offense taken. But we have to give credit to Odysseus, he was a cunning git and without him the War might have lasted another 10 years...
As for wars in general... sigh :-(


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

One minor "complaint" I might have is the author's use of "closed" to refer to proprietary software. Other than than, well thought out.

Fay's picture
Submitted by Fay on

Thank you for sharing this well-reasoned and logical discussion of the issues. The wording and tone level makes it accessible to anyone. I would be happy to link to this. Please keep it up.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

so basically novell signed up with microsoft, and in exchange for microsoft pushing the use to some degree of the usage of suse, novell has put itself in the position where microsoft can basically destroy them as well as a bunch of getting to be really successful and competitive software such as open office? companies are stupid, but often not THAT stupid. what you said in the article sincerely seems totally plausible, but the line that i sorta relate to, the line that i see in ur article that was the most important, was the part about how everything is done behind the scenes and with lawyers. its cool and smart to speculate about what might happen. hopefully someone working at suse will read this and give it to the higher up powers in the company to mull over. until then, i'm not gonna be talkin about how its the end for linux, or at least things like suse, anyway.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

One of the drawbacks to Linux in the enterprise has always been the single source of support when using either Red Hat or Novell. The fact that Oracle is now another source for supporting Red Hat will only expand the market for both companies as more IT managers will get that warm and fuzzy support feeling when thinking about new Linux servers. People like to have choices and the competition is good for everyone in the long run.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

It says that their promise of non-assertion against you for implementing Sender ID does not hold if you assert a patent against them over their implementation of Sender ID.

Edward Macnaghten's picture

You are correct, and on that basis I owe an apology to Microsoft for that. Details can be found at Microsoft's page.

The place I read about Sender-ID did not mention this (I cannot remember where that was, unfortunately). I usually check further before writing, I did not this time, that will teach me to do so in future. On the same note, however, I still personally think Microsoft are promoting Sender-ID to control the technology more than to improve life for all, anything that helps stop Spam I am for, but why did not Microsoft join with standards already in place (ie SPF)? There is obviously something in it for them for controlling this standard.

Even though the Microsoft pledge was not the monster I first thought, in fact seems quite reasonable to me, I still am against letting the Sender-ID horse through the gates of the city.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

If Microsoft really wanted to make life easier for folks, they would simply grant unrestricted use of the patent...or better yet, not have bothered to patent it in the first place. TCP/IP is not patent-encumbered, nor is HTTP, FTP, or Secure Shell. The CARP router redundancy protocol by OpenBSD is not patented. All of these are great boons for the entire Internet.

Microsoft follow de jure standards only when they feel that they absolutely have to. That's the only reason they adopted TCP/IP. Even when they do adopt standards, look at what they're trying to do with HTTP (CraptiveX, broken HTTP implementations, VBScript). There's a reason that we don't put bank robbers, especially repeat ones, in positions at financial institutions; it's because their past history shows that they'll likely do it again. The same is true of Microsoft; their past history, along with their current behaviour, has shown that they will do it again...and again...and again....

Trusting Microsoft is thus about the riskiest IT business proposition that you can consider. Novell made a big mistake here. It'll be interesting to see how long they last.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Isn't that in the singular? (My two years of Latin were many years ago!) If so, the translation would be, "I fear the Greeks, even bearing a gift."

Bruce Miller's picture

Speaking as a would-be geek, but one with two degrees in Classics, "et dona ferentes" is correct. Donum singular, dona plural. Think of stadium, stadia, datum, data.

strikesagain's picture

Does this mean that the suit filed by Novell against SCO which essentially throws a wrench in SCO-v-IBM wheelworks ? Could this be a part of the deal ?

Remember that Microsoft paid an amount of monies to SCO for IP that SCO should in turn handed over to Novell. Does this deal remove that wrench giving SCO some leeway in their puruit of IBM deep pockets ?

Talking about Greek, with all this tangled web of stabbings and back-stabbings and circular deals, does this scenario in technology world look anywhere like those fabled Greek operas where there is this whole maze of murders and in the end there is a sole character grieving for everybody ? I would compare this scenario to one of Quentin Tarantio movies, however, QT's stories have more sense and logic to them.

Jackie01's picture
Submitted by Jackie01 on

, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis", which is usually mistranslated into the phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" is indeed not true.In fact Greeks have good gift suggestions. They can even make handmade gifts.

[Edited to remove non-free software related URL/advertising]

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Edward Macnaghten's picture


Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.