September 4, 2003

Halloween, patents, and preloads

- by Joe Barr -

It's getting close to Halloween again. It's less than 90 days until the goblins come out to play. Over the past few years, Halloween has become synonymous with leaked internal Microsoft documents. Thanks to Eric S. Raymond, they have revealed Microsoft's planning, strategy, or analysis for coping with the free/open source software revolution. These "Halloween Documents," in case you've forgotten, are how we first got word of Microsoft's deep-seated fear of/interest in open source software. In a later Halloween document, we learned how they might use patents to combat the threat represented by Linux and the rest of the free/open source software world, and how OEMs might use the threat of Linux preloads to get better pricing.

As Halloween II makes clear, Microsoft has considered the use of intellectual property law to fight Linux. In his analysis of that document, ESR highlighted the following line: "The effect of patents and copyright in combatting Linux remains to be investigated."

While patents haven't really come into play as Microsoft envisioned (they have been used by IBM in their counter-suit against SCO), there certainly has been a rattling of copyrights. I think it is safe to say today that it no longer "remains to be investigated." There is activity on that front today. It's also clear that Microsoft is helping to bankroll SCO's legal siege against IBM and Linux.

Preloads are another matter. They have always been Microsoft's first line of defense against encroachment into its desktop monopoly. I happened to be re-reading ESR's analysis of the Halloween II document recently, and a single phrase stood out on the page to me like it never had before. It said: "Note, however, that Compaq and Dell merely have to credibly threaten Linux adoption in order to push for lower OEM OS pricing."

My ultra-sensitive CDU (Conspiracy Detector Unit) immediately began clanging the alarm as I let that sink in. Is that what we've seen this summer? It's certainly a possibility. Remember the IBM ThinkCentre announcement?

When John Spooner and Michael Kanellos originally reportedon the new line of IBM ThinkCentre PCs in May, they wrote that the new line of desktops would include models preloaded with Linux. That story was updated a day or two later to say that IBM would "ship with desktop versions of Red Hat or SuSE Linux on request to large customers" instead of preloading them. Kanellos told me later that IBM didn't get their story right the first time.

And even more recently, there was a lot of confusion over the HP announcement of Linux availability on its d220 business desktop. Much of the Linux press contingent reported it was a preload. That has turned out not to be the case.

Both IBM and HP offer desktop systems elsewhere in the world preloaded with Linux. But not here in the U.S. Two tier-one OEMs. Two announcements suggesting Linux preloads. Two clarifications. No preloads. Spooky, isn't it?

Joe Barr has been writing about technology for 10 years, and about Linux for five. His work has appeared in IBM Personal Systems Journal, LinuxGazette, LinuxWorld, Newsforge, phrack, SecurityFocus, and VARLinux.org. He is the founder of The Dweebspeak Primer, the official newsletter of the Linux Liberation Army.

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