Microsoft patent talks with competing Linux vendors

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said his company is open to talking to other Linux distributors about reaching mutual patent coverage deals similar to the agreement signed Nov. 2 with Novell.

Such talks would be a good idea, Ballmer suggested, since now only Novell's SUSE Linux customers have any assurance that Microsoft won't sue other Linux vendors for patent infringement.

Ballmer and Novell CEO Ronald Hovsepian spoke to eWEEK about the implications of their joint announcement here on Nov. 2. The two companies entered into a broad collaboration agreement aimed at providing greater interoperability between Windows and Linux while eliminating concerns about potential patent violations.

The two companies agreed to assemble a joint research facility to work on virtualization technology for Windows and Linux as well as developing greater compatibility between the Microsoft-backed Open XML and the open source community's OpenDocument formats. They also agreed to work on web service technology to manage physical and virtual servers in mixed Windows-Linux environments.

The distributors of no other version of Linux can assure their customers that Microsoft won't sue for patent infringement. "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," Ballmer said.

"I suspect that [customers] will take that issue up with their distributor," Ballmer said. Or if customers are considering doing a direct download of a non-SUSE Linux version, "they'll think twice about that," he said.

However, Ballmer did not say whether it had any plans to file patent infringement suits against other Linux distributors.

Competing Linux vendors "are certainly welcome to get involved to quickly provide these covenants not to sue," he said. These vendors have other incentives besides pressure from their customers and the worry about legal action, Ballmer noted.

The collaboration agreement demonstrates there are other factors "in which our technical cooperation is a definite advantage to Novell," Ballmer said.

The other Linux distributors, Ballmer suspects, will review their own position in the light of the Microsoft-Novell agreement. "There are a lot of Linux distributors now. All of the sudden you have got Oracle in the game; you've got Red Hat in the game."

They all "will have to face the issues and help their customers" in the same way that Novell is," Ballmer said.

The two companies haven't set any time tables for the delivery of Windows and Linux collaboration technologies. Planning is in very early stages, Hovsepian, said considering that the two companies formally signed the collaboration agreement literally minutes before they walked to the press conference podium at the JW Marriott Hotel here. "We'll roll out the schedules appropriately to the public as we get them finalized," Hovsepian said.

Robert Muglia, Microsoft's senior vice president for servers and tools and Jeffrey Jaffe Novell's executive vice president and chief technology officer will be working out the collaboration team's priorities and development plans, said Hovsepian.

The two companies are looking for a research laboratory location that will be equidistant to both companies' headquarters, Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. And Novell in Provo, Utah, said Justin Steinman, Novell's product marketing director for Linux.

One of the key goals of the collaboration effort is to build file format conversion technology that will provide greater interoperability between the OpenDocument and Open XML file formats. Novell and Microsoft are not trying to develop a file format that is optimized to work only with a particular version of Open Office, Ballmer said.

Nor will the collaboration team attempt to build file converters that can make files 100 percent compatible between the two file formats, he said. But it will achieve the kind level of interoperability that customers can work with, he said.

Both Ballmer and Hovsepian stressed that the signing of the collaboration agreement won't reduce the competition between Microsoft and Novell or between the Windows and the Linux development communities.

Ballmer said developing greater interoperability between Windows and SUSE Linux will actually the intensity of competition because it will make it easier for Microsoft to sell its technology into enterprise data centres with a mix of Linux and Windows server technology.

Microsoft has joined into this Windows-Linux collaboration projects because "customers want it" and because "if we're interoperable we are going to take more business from Linux." Novell is cooperating for exactly the same reasons, Hovsepian said. Ultimately, Ballmer said, the customer will decide which company wins the competition.

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