MIX - Novell's de Icaza criticizes Microsoft patent deal

Novell Vice President Miguel de Icaza expresses dismay at his company's patent-licensing agreement with Microsoft.

Open-source pioneer and Novell Vice President Miguel de Icaza Thursday for the first time publicly slammed his company's cross-patent licensing agreement with Microsoft as he defended himself against lack of patent protection for third parties that distribute his company's Moonlight project, which ports Microsoft's Silverlight technology to Linux.

Speaking on a panel at the MIX 08 conference in Las Vegas, de Icaza said that Novell has done the best it could to balance open-source interests with patent indemnification. However, if he had his way, the company would have remained strictly open source and not gotten into bed with Microsoft. Novell entered into a controversial multimillion dollar cross-patent licensing and interoperability deal with Microsoft in November 2006.

"I'm not happy about the fact that such an agreement was made, but [the decision] was above my pay grade; I think we should have stayed with the open-source community," de Icaza said. He was speaking on a panel that also included representatives from Microsoft and open-source companies Mozilla and Zend.

De Icaza is a well-known technology prodigy from Mexico City who cofounded the GNOME open-source project and whose company Ximian was purchased by Novell in 2003. He remains one of the company's most well-respected and best-known open-source proponents.

De Icaza's comments came as he received questions from an audience member about the Moonlight project, Novell's open-source project to bring Microsoft's Silverlight to Linux. Silverlight is cross-browser runtime for building and delivering applications on the Web.

During the discussion, de Icaza explained that while anyone who downloaded Moonlight from Novell was protected by the company's licensing of Silverlight codecs from Microsoft through the company's own cross-licensing agreement. Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering from Mozilla, then raised the question that if he downloads and then distributes the code for Moonlight, would he get the patent protection?

"There is a patent covenant for anyone that downloads [Moonlight] from Novell," answered de Icaza, who then acknowledged that "as to extending the patents to third parties -- you have to talk to Microsoft."

This answer led Schroepfer to point out the inconsistency between having products that are called open source but are "patent-encumbered." "There are a lot of complicated IP patent-licensing restrictions," he said. "Even if you have open-source [products], you can't get the end result you're interested in."

Schroepfer said that Mozilla does not have any patents or any form of indemnification for anything in its products that may violate other company's patents -- something de Icaza said certainly must be the case.

"We are as protected or unprotected as anyone else," Schroepfer said. "It's a fairly equal scenario."

De Icaza shot back that it was "unfair" of Schroepfer to paint Novell as the only company protected by patent covenants, as many companies have signed licensing agreements not only with Microsoft, but also with other companies such as IBM that have a large patent portfolio.

He also said that while it's commendable that Microsoft is attempting to be more open by allowing other companies more access to application programming interfaces, discussion and haggling over OSes and patents slows the industry as a whole's move to fully take advantage of new Web 2.0 business models, as Google has.

"The patent piece is such a small piece of it," de Icaza said. "I don't think Windows and Linux are relevant in the long term. They might be fantastic products ... but Google has shown itself to be a cash cow. There is a feature beyond selling corporate [software] and patents ... it's going to be owning end users."

Microsoft touts Silverlight as a cross-platform technology that will run on any browser or OS platform -- such as Windows, Mac or Linux. However, instead of offering a version for Linux itself, it has chosen to let Novell do it through the Moonlight project.

Keith Smith, director of product management for Microsoft, said that Microsoft decided to let Novell port Silverlight to Linux rather than do it themselves because of Novell's expertise with the Linux OS. Novell already had the Mono open-source .NET implementation project as well, which also factored into the decision, he said.

The choice has drawn ire from open-source diehards who were displeased with Novell's decision to sign a cross-licensing agreement with Microsoft in the first place. A Web site called "Boycott Novell" decried Moonlight as a Microsoft "pet project" and criticized the company's decision not to port Silverlight to Linux itself.

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