More Microsoft Patent Dealings

So, Linspire is the latest company to sign a patent deal with Microsoft. They’ve even managed to wrangle some additional items they claim are not in the other deals:

Linspire Inc. has announced an agreement to license voice-enabled instant messaging, Windows Media 10 CODECs, and TrueType font technologies from Microsoft for its Linux distribution. Additionally, Microsoft will offer protection to Linspire customers against possible violations of Microsoft patents by Linux.

In his June 14 weekly Linspire Letter, Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony stated, “This agreement will offer several advantages to Linspire Linux users not found anywhere else, such as Windows Media 10 support, genuine Microsoft TrueType fonts, Microsoft patent coverage, improved interoperability with Microsoft Windows computers, and so on.”

Linspire has always been more willing than most to include proprietary codecs and drivers, so this is no surprise. While I may not agree with their stance, I do think they are legitimately trying to improve the desktop Linux experience, and you can’t fault them for that (or at least I don’t). I do find it odd that they’d choose to have a demonstrably inferior product in Live Search be the default, but I digress. What’s troubling once again is the inclusion of dubious patent protection. Now, Linspire (nee Lindows) and Microsoft have a tumultuous history. In that vein, this post has some interesting tidbits.

We now have three Linux distributions wrapped up in this patent debate. It was speculated that Mandriva may be next. Based on the profile of the latest two companies, it seemed a logical guess if you had to make one. It’s good to see that they have gone on the record saying that it’s not going to happen. Red Hat already rejected the idea and Mark made his feelings very clear in this post:

There’s a rumour circulating that Ubuntu is in discussions with Microsoft aimed at an agreement along the lines they have concluded recently with Linspire, Xandros, Novell etc. Unfortunately, some speculation in the media (thoroughly and elegantly debunked in the blogosphere but not before the damage was done) posited that “Ubuntu might be next”.

For the record, let me state my position, and I think this is also roughly the position of Canonical and the Ubuntu Community Council though I haven’t caucused with the CC on this specifically.

We have declined to discuss any agreement with Microsoft under the threat of unspecified patent infringements.

Allegations of “infringement of unspecified patents” carry no weight whatsoever. We don’t think they have any legal merit, and they are no incentive for us to work with Microsoft on any of the wonderful things we could do together. A promise by Microsoft not to sue for infringement of unspecified patents has no value at all and is not worth paying for. It does not protect users from the real risk of a patent suit from a pure-IP-holder (Microsoft itself is regularly found to violate such patents and regularly settles such suits). People who pay protection money for that promise are likely living in a false sense of security.

I welcome Microsoft’s stated commitment to interoperability between Linux and the Windows world – and believe Ubuntu will benefit fully from any investment made in that regard by Microsoft and its new partners, as that code will no doubt be free software and will no doubt be included in Ubuntu.

He also goes on to state why he dislikes OOXML.

With regard to open standards on document formats, I have no confidence in Microsoft’s OpenXML specification to deliver a vibrant, competitive and healthy market of multiple implementations. I don’t believe that the specifications are good enough, nor that Microsoft will hold itself to the specification when it does not suit the company to do so. There is currently one implementation of the specification, and as far as I’m aware, Microsoft hasn’t even certified that their own Office12 completely implements OpenXML, or that OpenXML completely defines Office12’s behavior. The Open Document Format (ODF) specification is a much better, much cleaner and widely implemented specification that is already a global standard. I would invite Microsoft to participate in the OASIS Open Document Format working group, and to ensure that the existing import and export filters for Office12 to Open Document Format are improved and available as a standard option. Microsoft is already, I think, a member of OASIS. This would be a far more constructive open standard approach than OpenXML, which is merely a vague codification of current practice by one vendor.

The speculation as to what Microsoft’s end goals are with this remain all over the map. I maintain they themselves may not even be sure yet. One might think they are trying to fracture the Linux market – a sort of divide and conquer. As long as Ubuntu and Red Hat remain on the other side, however, that plan isn’t going to work. The only real loser in that scenario would potentially be Novell. It’s clear that smaller, desktop oriented companies are their current sweet spot, which says a lot in my opinion. Not sure where this is all going, but it’s getting more interesting to watch by the day. Stay tuned.

–jeremy

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