A Schizophrenic Look at Microsoft, Novell, and Patents

No matter how you look at it, Microsoft's open purchase of Novell's patents was very sane.

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I read with interest Savio Rodrigues' post today that postulated that Microsoft's not-so-secret role in (at least) the patent segment of Attachmate's acquisition of Novell would damage "Microsoft's positive work with open source projects and communities."

With all due respect to Rodrigues, I don't believe that's the case at all. Microsoft's role in snapping up the 882 Novell patents for $450 million makes no difference in how Microsoft regards open source and how open source regards Microsoft. Not one bit of difference at all.

And hey, this is a multiple-personality statement, too. First up, angry open source rant guy:

Microsoft won't have its open source work affected by its participation in the Novell/Attachmate acquisition because at the end of the day, Microsoft doesn't give a ____ about open source. Period. Any efforts Microsoft makes in the open source community or with open source software is cursory at best--a token effort to "participate" while they look for ways to either get control of this open source phenomenon or kill it outright.

The Novell patent grab is just another in a long line of actions that proves Microsoft looking out for the one thing it really cares about: Microsoft.

Next, dispassionate business guy:

While Microsoft's acquisition of as-yet-unidentified patents from Novell's portfolio has raised some eyebrows in the open source community, the move is likely a defensive one on the part of the Redmond-based software company, in order to ensure the patents in question don't fall into the hands of less-than-scrupulous holding firms with a taste for litigation.

In this, Microsoft has remained consistent. Officials at the company have long publicly lamented the costs of litigation while dealing with a US patent system that is arguably broken, at least as far as software is concerned. The litigation savings it may have gained from purchasing these patents may far outstrip the $450 million price tag, and certainly eclipses the benefits (fiscal or otherwise) the company has seen thus far from any open source participation.

And here's average Linux user guy:

Yeah, yeah, Novell, Microsoft, blah, blah, blah. How do I get Google Earth running on my 64-bit Linux machine, please?

Which of these voices are getting the most listening time in my head? Actually, the quiet pragmatist, who is sitting back and watching Microsoft be quite clever about how it's handling the press around its part in the Novell/Attachmate acquisition. Rodrigues openly believes "it's difficult to see what benefit Microsoft thought it would receive by being named as a central figure to the Novell acquisition."

It's not that difficult, actually. Microsoft is trying to position itself as the natural successor for Novell's customers--both the legacy NetWare users and the new and growing Linux customer base. Getting its name prominently in the middle of this acquisition sends a signal that Microsoft is invested in the fate of Novell and--by extension--Novell's customers, past, present, and future. It's a marketing play that also has the benefit of shoring up Microsoft's already extensive patent portfolio.

And if the acquisition of some of Novell's IP sends a not-so-subtle signal to the Linux and open source communities that Microsoft is sitting on even more patents with which it can saber-rattle, then that's even better for Redmond.

No matter which personality is watching, any observer has to admit it's a tidy little plan. Well worth spending any capital Microsoft may or may not have with the open source community.

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