Microsoft’s perfect timing

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Microsoft has always had excellent timing. They know when to announce a product; they know when to begin grass-roots movements to build hype for a product; they know when to create an alliance; they know when to break an alliance. They have missed some marks, that's true. They almost missed the internet boat, but were able to quickly recover with the licensing of Spyglass, Inc's browser. Microsoft's best timing, though, has always been when and where to spread Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.

And that brings us to Novell.

The marketing of an idea

The secret to proper FUD is in how it's marketed.

Marketing itself is all about ideas: product A is superior to product B, and will bring you good health and make you irresistible to the beautiful people of your choice. The competitors' products will cause your hair to fall out and your beer to lose its fizz. These are all ideas more powerful than the product or service being sold.

The best marketing is indirect. People are jaded, and don't believe the claims made in advertisements. These days, we have faux-grassroots campaigns, viral marketing, and marketing disguised as news items.

With this in mind, let me ask a question:

What's the purpose of the recent announcement of the deal struck between Microsoft and Novell?

I'm not asking about the deal itself. I think there are subtleties at work here that will take years to unravel. There's the reference to the subversion of the GPL. There's the whole pall of the slightly-veiled patent threats. There's the cross-licensing aspect that opens the vaults of Novell for Microsoft's plundering. No, I'm asking about the timing of the announcement.

The answer:

It's about Vista.

The marketing of a product

Microsoft is facing their toughest sell since Microsoft Bob. Their two cash-cows have their first upgrade in years. Meanwhile, MS-Windows is facing pressure from GNU/Linux in the server room and, to an increasing degree, on the desktop; and the debates about adoption of standard document formats has given good exposure to OpenOffice. The usual marketing concerning the total cost of ownership and retraining has lost its luster, especially given the major revamp in user interfaces for both Vista and the new version of MS-Office. Vista's hardware requirements will force another round of hardware upgrades, which is never cheap, either in the cost of the hardware itself, or in staff time. The major reasons to upgrade to Vista have been removed, such as the database-backed filesystem. Except for the pretty desktop special effects, and minor security enhancements, there seems to be little reason to upgrade.

Companies evaluating the cost of Vista and MS-Office upgrades should be asking themselves, "Since a migration is being forced on us, why not look at migrating to a different platform entirely?" Many corporations are not asking that question, but many are. During the last upgrade cycle to MS-Windows XP, some corporations used GNU/Linux as a negotiation tactic against Microsoft, pressuring a better deal on corporate licenses for their servers and their desktops.

Now, less than a month before the release of corporate Vista, Microsoft has created a climate that will chill that negotiation tactic. We saw Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer begin this chilling effect this last week, when he said, "If a customer says, 'Look, do we have liability for the use of your patented work?' Essentially, If you're using non-Suse Linux, then I'd say the answer is yes."

"Oh," the sales rep can say during licensing negotiations, "are you planning on installing Suse Linux?" Then they can go on about how dangerous it is to deploy GNU/Linux, unless it is Suse Linux. "And do you know how expensive that is?" they can ask.

Until now, there has been little fear about installing GNU/Linux, SCO lawsuits notwithstanding. Red Hat Linux is a particular favorite, but there are many installations of GNU/Linux without any commercial support. System administrators simply download the latest version of their favorite distribution and install. Now, businesses will be more likely to require installation of GNU/Linux with "indemnification," such as Red Hat Linux of Suse Linux, increasing substantially the price of initial implementation and adding to recurring costs. This decreases the GNU/Linux value compared to Microsoft products.

Visits from the Business Software Alliance (BSA) never worried those with GNU/Linux. With the threat of Microsoft retaliating with patents, very large corporations -- those most likely to turn to GNU/Linux, or at least use it in license negotiations with Microsoft -- are less likely to consider GNU/Linux at all, at least until this is all sorted out. By that time, they will have upgraded to Vista, allowing Microsoft to continue domination through this upgrade cycle.

In the end, this is all about Vista. This is all about a forced-march upgrade cycle. This is all about pulling the prop from under corporate threats of a mass GNU/Linux migration. This is all about removing choice.

It's all about marketing the idea that GNU/Linux is not safe, and you should probably stick with Vista.



Johannes Hutabarat's picture

Yes, I can agree with the argument of this newly struck deal being Microsoft's marketing gyrate. But as they say, "It takes two to tango", it would've been more enlightening had you outlined your take on Novell's motives.

My simple speculation: Novell is a thoroughly true business entity and in need of cash infusion.

Anthony Taylor's picture

I've been wondering what Novell really gets out of this. As it is, they get immediate publicity, and the market clout of Microsoft's blessing. The cash infusion will help, certainly, but cash evaporates. Only continued sales matter; the cash is only good if they have a plan.

I think it is Microsoft's blessing that really matters here, even though it is useless in the end. I think they believe decision makers who seriously consider GNU/Linux will tend to opt for the one that has Microsoft's backing.

Truly, though, there is no such thing as patent protection. Novell is still open to patent litigation, the same as everyone else. Microsoft is hardly the only company in the world with software patents. So this "covenant" doesn't make Suse any safer, unless Microsoft plans on following through on their threat to litigate.

They won't do that until the EU allows software patents. Can you imagine the fuss raised if Microsoft demonstrates why software patents are a bad idea?

So, I think Novell gets only two things out of this: a quick cash infusion (as you noted), and the notoriety the deal brings them. Looking at their stock, they saw an immediate increase after the announcement, but then suffered a quick decline. So, it looks like traders aren't biting, either. At least, not yet.

I think Novell was taking a gamble that this would hurt Red Hat, and help them. I think they suffered the SCO Effect: they got greedy and hoped to control something that, by design, actively resists being controlled.

I think Novell's goals are rather transparent. They want to Robin to Microsoft's Batman. Or, more aptly, Darth Vader to Microsoft's Emperor Palpatine.

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

The article fails to mention how partnering with Novell increases their patent threats against Linux. If someone else can see what I, and probably others, can't, please explain.

Anthony Taylor's picture

The point isn't the patent threats. The point is the appearance of patent threats.

Before the ink was dry on the agreement, Steve Ballmer said, as I quoted in the article, "If a customer says, 'Look, do we have liability for the use of your patented work?' Essentially, If you're using non-Suse Linux, then I'd say the answer is yes."

Microsoft has learned from SCO's little adventure. SCO's suit was never about copyright infringement in the Linux kernel. It was always about contract disputes. Yet their public face made it seem as if it were all about tricksy hackers stealing precious source code from Unix. The public claims have caused much more damage than the actual court case.

So, the Microsoft/Novell deal doesn't increase the likelihood of Microsoft pressing patent claims. It's an indirect threat, in which Microsoft gets to obliquely threaten GNU/Linux with patents without ever really threatening.

That's the basis for the FUD. Simply by casting the doubt, Microsoft has blunted the threat of GNU/Linux deployments during Vista license negotiations, and perhaps given pause to larger US companies considering actual deployment of GNU/Linux in place of Vista.

GNU/Linux is just as open to patent litigation as before. Microsoft is simply announcing they are willing to talk about potentially threatening GNU/Linux vendors' customers unless the vendor is willing to "negotiate."

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Anthony Taylor's picture


Tony Taylor was born, causing his mother great discomfort, and has lived his life ever since. He expects to die some day. Until that day, he hopes to continue writing, and living out his childhood dream of being a geek.