Microsoft interoperability team: Bring on Red Hat

Leaders of Microsoft Corp.'s strategy to make its products more interoperable with competing technologies said the company still hopes to strike a Linux pact with Red Hat Inc. similar to the partnerships it has forged with Linux vendors Novell Inc., Xandros Inc. and Linspire Inc.

"We'd love to do the same deal with Red Hat," said Tom Robertson, general manager of corporate interoperability and standards at Microsoft in an interview Friday. "We're always open to talking with them."

So far, Red Hat has not shared that sentiment; the company has stated that it's not interested in a deal. On Friday, Red Hat spokeswoman Leigh Day said that is still the case.

"We continue to believe that open source and the innovation it represents should not be subject to an unsubstantiated tax that lacks transparency," she said in an e-mail. Red Hat criticized last year's high-profileNovell Inc.-Microsoft Linux deal, calling it "unthinkable."

Just last week, Linux vendors participated in a strategy session to discuss tactics regarding Microsoft and open source. Held at Google Inc.'s headquarters, the confab was hosted by The Linux Foundation, which Red Hat is a member of. Still, as Microsoft lines up the other Linux ducks in a neat little row, some wonder if Red Hat might be next, and rumors suggest a pact might be imminent. Microsoft's latest Linux deal came Thursday in an intellectual-property-sharing and interoperability agreement with Linspire Inc. that would shield Linspire's customers from Microsoft patent-infringement claims. The deal follows one struck by Microsoft and Linux distributor Xandros Inc. last week.

Microsoft has said that it is seeking these partnerships for a couple of reasons. The one Robertson is most interested in is interoperability, since he -- along with Jean Paoli, Microsoft's general manager, interoperability and XML architecture -- is in charge of Microsoft's 18-month, companywide strategy in this area.

Robertson said that Microsoft customers have demanded that the company address the issue of interoperability with other vendors' applications, including open-source offerings, and that intellectual property (IP) in those products is a concern for them. "If you look across the industry, you see companies working together to address IP on behalf of their customer base," he said.

Microsoft has publicly said that Linux and other open-source applications violate 235 of the company's patents. But rather than pursue litigation as a way to settle its IP claims, Microsoft is striking individual deals, Robertson said.

However, the company has not publicly disclosed any of the patents it claims open-source software is violating. Robertson would not address why Microsoft will not show its patents, and he stopped short of claiming the deals with Novell, Linspire and Xandros prove those companies are indeed violating Microsoft IP. None of the Linux companies will say so, either, and Novell in fact has vehemently denied infringement. This discrepancy is one reason some feel Red Hat will never sign up for an indemnification deal with Microsoft.

The other reason why Microsoft is seeking these partnerships involves size and business viability of the companies that have signed on so far. Novell was flagging when its deal was struck -- and the company has continued to wane even since -- and some familiar with how the deal happened said it was a bailout to save Novell from being split up and sold piecemeal. Indeed, Novell's U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing about the deal revealed that Novell got $348 million upfront from Microsoft for patent cooperation and Linux coupons, while only having to shell out $40 million to Microsoft in return.

Though Microsoft will not comment on the financial terms of deals with Xandros and Linspire, people familiar with the agreements said those companies also received financial compensation from Microsoft. This begs the question that if interoperability and protecting customers are Microsoft's ultimate goals for the deals, as Robertson said, why is the company so interested in Linux companies that ultimately don't affect that many customers?

Many -- particularly those in the Linux camp -- suspect Microsoft is trying to make it appear that open-source distributors are violating Microsoft intellectual property to vilify them in an effort to dissuade customers from using Linux and other open-source technologies.

Bruce Perens, a longtime Linux and open-source advocate, said Microsoft is giving Linux companies that are on the edge of going out of business money to create the illusion that Linux vendors are stealing its intellectual property. Perens is a vice president at SourceLabs Inc., a company that does testing, management and certification of open-source software.

"Here is Microsoft out collecting the losers in the Linux business and paying them money so they can... paint open source as music pirates out there using Microsoft technology without a license," he said. "I think they're out to scare people."

Even if this is the case, it takes two to tango, and it's important to note that companies such as Novell, Linspire and Xandros benefit in various ways from their deals with Microsoft. Aside from any financial compensation, the companies also gain access to Microsoft technology that would make their own Linux products more viable in the marketplace, analysts said.

"These companies want the deals with Microsoft because it will make the products more attractive and more compatible with the Windows world," said Michael Silver, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "It's pretty clear that there is definitely value for these companies."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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