The end of 2010 has been interesting. Mass defections from Oracle's OpenOffice team and the software is ported as LibreOffice. Then Mark Shuttleworth announces that Wayland is in, Xorg is out and Unity will be the next Ubuntu desktop. I was just getting my head around all that when the newswires started humming again with the news that Novell had been sold. I experienced a strong sense of deja vu and began to wonder if this was going to be a reprise of Sun's sale to Oracle and the forking of OpenOffice, one of the crown jewels of GNU/Linux.
According to Matt Asay, justice is served by the recent $2.5M judgment against SCO in favor of Novell.
The wheels of justice grind slowly, but exceedingly fine.
Closer inspection reveals that while justice was served, it was within a very narrow scope. It seems that Microsoft has succeeded in recycling some of the cash spent propping up SCO in the campaign against free software.
A recent article caught my eye and turned it a nice shade of red. It discussed the -- hardly new -- idea that the future of software usage must involve a mixture of free and proprietary products -- something the writer refers to as "mixed source". The piece was entitled "Mixed source - the best of both worlds" which may give you a clue as to where I disagree with it.
The article was an opinion piece by Steve Harris, senior director for open source products at Novell in issue 78 of Linux User & Developer magazine. Sadly it's not yet available on-line and I don't honestly know if it will be. If it is I'll post a comment with a link here so you can read it for yourself.
When we consider the situation Microsoft finds itself in with regard to the GNU General Public License (GPL), it is important to consider how one determines when someone has accepted the GNU GPL and, hence, when someone is actually bound by its terms. Many people receive software that has been licensed under the terms of the GNU GPL all the time. However, simply receiving software licensed under the GNU GPL does not, in itself, mean that one has accepted the terms. Indeed, there is no contract to sign when receiving said software and certainly no “End User License Agreement”.
The answer to that question is probably not, though the thought had crossed my mind. In a way they already have done in a small way, they have given Novell approximately a quater's worth of net profit in return for what appears to be a cut of all Open Enterprise and SUSE Linux sales. Although no shares have changed hands, this, in itself, seems to me to be a kind of "virtual" company sale. This is even not considering the palaver regarding the patent covenants....
Any serious, committed user of GNU/Linux who hasn’t heard about the Microsoft/Novell deal has either been slightly dead or at the bottom of an Albanian tin mine shaft wearing a particularly sturdy pair of ear muffs.
Seriously though, the digital wires have been humming back and forth with the original story and the chain-reaction stemming from it. Is it all a storm in a teacup, an over-action? And, does it really matter to the mere, humble end-user like me? I think that it does matter.
You know how when people win awards, like an Oscar for example, they get up there and gush things like “I’d just like to thank my parents, and the academy, and my fifth grade drama teacher, and God for this award, omigod!!!”? Well, if I was put in a position today where I was going to have to gush on stage about, say, my computer use, then I know what I would say. There I would be, staring into the sea of admiring faces, and I would gush: “I would just like to thank my PC, the internet, and Microsoft... because as a Linux user I have naturally been complicit in intellectual property infringement and therefore owe Microsoft a good deal of money. Thanks baby, couldn’t have done it without you. Oh, and the cheque’s in the mail.”
Or that’s what Steve Ballmer reckons I should say, anyway.
I’ve seen many comments on the Microsoft-Novell affair, like Tony’s very good one. Some more will appear in the next few days, I suppose. I’ll take a little space to say a few words about it.
I’ve read about an alliance in the interest of customers... wow! THAT would be a scoop by itself, and a completely new thing for Microsoft. Or can you think of something they did that wasn’t in only their interest? It’s business? Ok, but let’s play it fair then: I know that marketing rules don’t allow anyone to say straight “I am just trying to get more money, you know?”, but you are not compelled to tell lies; if you can’t tell the truth just shut your mouth and don’t try to make fun of us.
It's entirely possible that Novell is about to get fleeced, and that GNU/Linux will take a hit in the process, and Microsoft has a history of playing the Big Bad. But are we really being smart to always assume that Microsoft will win every battle it enters?
Novell lawyers pulled some fairly smooth legal judo against SCO only a few months ago. I think it might be a little early to call a winner. Eben Moglen and some other observers have noted the peculiar and difficult to predict consequences of the kind of deal that is being reported.
Novell recently signed an agreement with Microsoft. From the press release:
Under the patent agreement, both companies will make up-front payments in exchange for a release from any potential liability for use of each others patented intellectual property, with a net balancing payment from Microsoft to Novell reflecting the larger applicable volume of Microsoft’s product shipments. Novell will also make running royalty payments based on a percentage of its revenues from open source products.
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.
While gNewSense enjoys its initial introduction as a fully free as in freedom distribution, it seems at the same time an existing GNU/Linux distribution has turned to slavery. Excuse me a moment, while I remove the metaphorical knife from my back before continuing. Never before has the contrast between software freedom and intellectual slavery been more clear thanks to the proud efforts of gNewSense, and the craven ones of Novell.
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...