Microsoft's patent claims jar open-source backers

Microsoft's patent assertions could dampen enthusiasm for interoperability work, says the open-source community

Microsoft's bold patent claims against Linux could complicate the company's efforts to get along better with the open-source community and develop more interoperable products.

The software giant has taken a markedly different tact toward the open-source community since CEO Steve Ballmer labeled Linux a "cancer" in 2001, primarily because the concurrent use of open-source and Microsoft software in businesses has made it a competitive issue. Also, interoperability with other software could bring Microsoft more revenue.

Several development projects are under way that aim to make open-source software work better with Microsoft technologies. Microsoft's deal with Novell calls for co-development of virtualization technologies to enable Suse Linux to run better on Windows and vice versa. SugarCRM, an open-source CRM (customer relationship management) vendor, is also collaborating with Microsoft to improve interoperability.

But the tenuous goodwill could be on the line since Microsoft asserted earlier this week that Linux and other open-source software infringe on some 235 patents it holds. The claim sparked fear that lawsuits could be looming, although Microsoft officials insist they want licensing agreements, not epic court battles.

"We're not out to attack any open-source companies," said Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy and director of Microsoft's work with open-source projects, in an interview on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, those in the open-source community are leery. "They want open-source software companies to like them and tell everyone what a good friend to open-source software Microsoft is," said Dave Rosenberg, CEO of MuleSource, an open-source middleware vendor. "But it's clear that the goal is not to embrace but to destroy."

Microsoft's latest revelation may cause companies not to consider open-source software, even though the company's patent claims are vague, Rosenberg said.

Alfresco Software Inc., which supports an open-source content management system, worked with Microsoft on a major customer integration involving SQL Server, said Matt Asay, vice president of business development.

But patent FUD -- fear, uncertainty and doubt -- will be a major inhibitor for Alfresco in getting close with Microsoft in the future, Asay said.

"How can any company -- open source or proprietary -- feel comfortable working with a company that has taken such an aggressive, pay-us-or-else approach to its patent portfolio?" Asay said.

While Microsoft executives such as Hilf may have good intentions toward open source, many may not, Asay said. "Bill is a small outpost in a large company that clearly has a genetic predisposition to despise and fear open source. And they're not ready to love yet. Ballmer? No way."

But Microsoft has hired seasoned industry pros to staff its Port 25 lab, dedicated to studying Linux and how Microsoft can interoperate with open source. It recently worked with Mozilla, backer of the Firefox browser, to produce a plug-in that makes Windows Media Player work better in the software.

Hank Janssen, a group program manager who works in Port 25, said at one time he never thought he'd work for Microsoft. Janssen worked for many years in AT&T's laboratories on Unix technology.

Janssen got a warm reception from developers who want a better dialogue with Microsoft when he went to the ApacheCon Europe 2007 conference, dedicated to the Apache Web server, in Amsterdam earlier this month.

"I would say that the majority of the open-source software people I talk to are very pragmatic and show great interest in starting a dialogue around how we can work together," Janssen said.

The patent claim, however, could reinforce the perception that Microsoft is a bully, said Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, senior researcher, who studies open-source software usage at United Nations University-Merit in Maastricht in the Netherlands. But Ghosh thinks it's hard to tell if the claims will inhibit business deals between open-source companies and Microsoft without more details about the patents in question.

"There's really nothing for anyone to worry about," Ghosh said.

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Jeremy Kirk

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