Microsoft, Novell defend partnership, promise details

Novell execs said more information about the deal would be out next week

SAN FRANCISCO -- Executives from Microsoft and Novell defended their controversial business agreement to collaborate and promote integration between Windows and Novell's SUSE Linux operating systems yesterday, saying that Microsoft's sales organization is now the biggest channel for SUSE Linux and that the deal will help, not hurt, the prospects of Linux in the enterprise.

Representatives from the two companies said that Microsoft has opened the door for Linux adoption at large companies such as Wal-Mart and Nationwide Bank, benefiting the open-source community. Novell promised to allay concerns by providing details about the arrangement, along with a raft of restated financial quarterly and annual reports, by the end of May, according to Justin Steinman, director of marketing for Novell's Linux and Open Platform Solutions.

Steinman took part in a panel discussion at The Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) here this week. Also on the panel were Microsoft's Linux Labs Director Sam Ramji and open-source advocates Jonathan Corbet, executive editor of, and Allison Randal of O'Reilly Media.

Contrary to its image within the open-source community as a threat, Microsoft is the chief source of Linux business for Novell -- and the deal between the two companies has been a boon for SUSE Linux, Steinman said. "Microsoft was Novell's No. 1 channel partner in the first quarter of 2007," he said. "We've seen 60% (first-quarter) growth in SUSE, year over year."

Ramji seconded that, saying that the future of networked computing is in heterogeneous environments based on commodity and Windows will have to be able to interoperate with platforms like Linux to survive.

But Ramji and Steinman faced tough criticism from Corbet and Randal, as well as audience members, especially over recent claims by Microsoft's lead attorney that the company will seek royalties from open-source users for violations of more than 200 company patents. Microsoft has since backed off claims that it will pursue legal action, but open-source advocates -- including Novell -- have expressed anger and skepticism of the company's claims.

"I don't think there's a lot in that 235 number," said Novell's Steinman, referring to the number of patents Microsoft is claiming, "but we feel that comments like that are not productive," he said.

Corbet, of, however, accused Novell of enabling Microsoft's bad behavior.

"Novell is paying Microsoft a per-unit fee (on sales of SUSE Linux). If there's not a patent issue, what are you paying for?" he asked. "I feel as if I'm being called a thief, and to have it come from within our own community is divisive."

Under the patent cross-licensing and co-development deal, Novell agreed to pay Microsoft a percentage of revenues from open-source products, while Microsoft agreed to waive patent claims against users of SUSE Linux. The deal has been a source of controversy since it was unveiled in November 2006.

So far, specifics of the agreement have not been made public. But Novell said during the session it would do so at the end of May as an attachment to its annual 10-K filing for 2006. That filing has been held up by an internal investigation into stock-based compensation practices, which has now been completed.

Depending on what those details are, the Microsoft-Novell deal could be seen as a serious challenge to the freedoms enjoyed by open-source developers or as an unremarkable business collaboration deal, said Randal of O'Reilly. "This deal didn't change the game. My sense is that if this deal were between Microsoft and IBM, it would barely even get mentioned," she said.

The issue of patents has been front and center at OSBC, which began on Tuesday, and audience members expressed disappointment over the mixed signals coming from Microsoft over possible litigation and what many perceived as a lack of honest cooperation between Microsoft and the open-source community.

"I'm not afraid of Novell coming after me like I'm afraid of Microsoft coming after me," said Jon Stumpf, senior vice president of engineering at AIG. "I don't need a new (collaboration) deal on virtualization or ODF. I need cooperation on standards."

At other times, audience members responded with outright derision at efforts to smooth over the disagreements that have resulted from the partnership. For example, Ramji's contention that Microsoft's assertion of patent rights are merely an effort to "increase transparency" were greeted with laughter -- especially since the company has declined to name the patents that have been infringed.

Nat Friedman, chief open-source technology officer at Novell, said that he doubts the session would end debate about the cross-licensing deal but expressed optimism that the worst is over. Novell has already lost two high-profile open-source developers to Google in the wake of the deal: Samba guru Jeremy Allison in December and Linux kernel programmer Robert Love in May. But Friedman said the company is hiring more programmers to work on user interface and kernel programming for SUSE.

This story, "Microsoft, Novell defend partnership, promise details" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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