Microsoft's hand in Novell deal bodes ill for Linux

Open source vendors unwilling to 'partner with' Microsoft could increasingly face patent litigation.

Attachmate may be the primary purchasing party in the Novell acquisition deal announced today, but the involvement of Microsoft means there's a fresh new threat to Linux looming on the horizon.

"Novell also announced it has entered into a definitive agreement for the concurrent sale of certain intellectual property assets to CPTN Holdings LLC, a consortium of technology companies organized by Microsoft Corporation, for $450 million in cash, which cash payment is reflected in the merger consideration to be paid by Attachmate Corporation," the press release reads.

Attachmate plans to run Novell's SUSE Linux business, according to the announcement, and it's not yet clear which--if any--of Novell's Linux-based assets will end up in Microsoft's hands. If Unix is involved in those assets, however, it won't be good news for Linux or open source software in general.

A Deal About to Expire

Attachmate's ownership of SUSE is bad enough news in and of itself. Given the company's history so far, it's very difficult to imagine the company making anything more than the most basic investments to keep the Linux distribution going, so the many companies relying on the software would do well to watch the situation closely from now on. Red Hat may ultimately benefit from this decision.

As for Microsoft, its primary purpose in participating in the deal was doubtless to prevent Novell from ending up in the hands of VMware, one of its key competitors.

But Microsoft and Novell already have a history in the Linux arena. Back in 2006 the two companies signed a controversial five-year agreement in the name of cross-platform software compatibility. "This set of agreements will really help bridge the divide between open-source and proprietary source software," Steve Ballmer said back then.

That deal will be expiring next year, however; what better solution for Microsoft than to buy up a bunch of Novell's assets instead? More ominously, what better tool to begin making Linux vendors an offer they can't refuse?

This seems an especially likely scenario in light of Linux's new prominence and Windows' shrinking role in large companies' purchasing plans.

'Embrace, Extend, Extinguish'

Microsoft is infamous for its tendency to embrace open source software with one hand while bashing it with the other--witness its latest FUD video targeting OpenOffice.org, for example.

So if it does end up with some of Novell's Linux assets, it's not going to be a good thing. No matter what it might say, Microsoft's history of patent litigation and its repeatedly used "embrace, extend and extinguish" strategy proves that it is no friend of open source software.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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