Microsoft-Novell: What a long, strange year it’s been

In what’s been a controversial (to say the least) partnership, the Microsoft-Novell technology partnership and patent-protection arrangement has reached its one-year anniversary.

Microsoft issued on November 7 a press release to mark the occasion, citing “30 new customers” that have signed up for certificates for three-year priority support subscriptions for SuSE Linux Enterprsie Server from Novell. The new customers include Costco, Southwest Airlines and the City of Los Angeles, according to Microsoft.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft isn’t saying much about the part of its collaboration with Novell which has generated the most publicly outcry: The patent-protection component. The press release simply states that the 30 new customers are “join(ing) the ranks of all other Microsoft and Novell customers currently benefiting from the companies’ collaboration to enable interoperability and IP peace of mind in mixed environments.”

As those who’ve followed in greater depth the twists and turns of Microsoft’s attempts to pressure Linux distribution vendors to pay for alleged infringement on Microsoft patents know, the Microsoft-Novell partnership has not been all smooth sailing. In the past year, here are a few of the related milestones in the Novell-Microsoft relationship that Microsoft isn’t celebrating in today’s press release:

Late November 2006: Novell’s leadership is so upset over CEO Steve Ballmer’s continued claims that Novell was in violation of Microsoft patents that they issued a statement repudiating that contention. Microsoft issues a public statement of its own, which does nothing to back Novell’s claim: “Microsoft and Novell have agreed to disagree on whether certain open source offerings infringe Microsoft patents and whether certain Microsoft offerings infringe Novell patents. The agreement between our two companies puts in place a workable solution for customers for these issues, without requiring an agreement between our two companies on infringement.

December 2006: One of Novell’s high-profile hires, Jeremy Allison of Samba fame, quits in protest of the Novell-Microsoft deal. “The patent agreement struck between Novell and Microsoft is a divisive agreement,” said Allison in his public statement. “It deals with users and creators of free software differently depending on their ‘commercial’ versus ‘non-commercial’ status, and deals with them differently depending on whether they obtained their free software directly from Novell or from someone else. The goals of the Free Software community and the GNU GPL allow for no such distinctions.”

February 2007: CEO Ballmer throws cold water, yet again, on Novell’s contention that technological collaboration was the primary reason Microsoft forged a partnership with Novell. Ballmer tells Wall Street: “I would not anticipate that we make a huge additional revenue stream from our Novell deal, but I do think it clearly establishes that Open Source is not free and Open Source will have to respect intellectual property rights of others just as any other competitor will.”

May 2007: Microsoft goes public with claims that free and open-source software violates 235 of its patents. The company has refused to provide further specifics (unless it is doing so privately, when it is meeting, one-on-one, with various vendors it hopes to get to sign patent-protection clauses like Novell’s).

May 2007: Microsoft issues the results of a Microsoft-funded study claiming that rank-and-file open-source developers don’t want the Free Software Foundation to dictate policy (meaning GPL-related terms and conditions) on patent-protection deals, like the one forged last year between Microsoft and Novell.

July 2007: Microsoft adds a note to its Web site notifying customers that the Novell agreement will not cover any GPLv3-protected software. The Novell certificates distributed by Microsoft cover GPLv2-protected versions of SuSE Enterprise Linux. However, these Linux certificates reportedly have no expiration date, which could make for some interesting legal challenges down the road.

Since inking the Novell deal a year ago, Microsoft has convinced three other Linux distribution vendors — Xandros, Linspire and TurboLinux — to sign similar pacts. Red Hat and others have held out.


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