June 15, 2007

Linspire CEO singing a different tune after Microsoft deal

Author: Lisa Hoover

When Linspire 6.0 is released next month, it will include the fruits of the recently announced marriage between Linspire and Microsoft. Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony says he has been in talks with Microsoft for about a year and a half before reaching an agreement. It was just seven months ago, however, that Carmony took Microsoft to task for its agreement with Novell, calling it nothing but "lip service" and "scare tactics." A mere four months ago, he heralded Linspire's partnership with Canonical as a way to "address common challenges Linux faces in a world dominated by Microsoft Windows." How does Carmony account for his sudden shift in attitude? "Linux has gotten better," he says. "It doesn't need to play that card."

In what Carmony says is a move designed to "fill some key holes in our current offering," the new version of Linspire will include a veritable stew of functionality and permissions: licensed codecs that will increase the interoperability between both companies' instant messengers and digital media players, TrueType fonts, translators that will allow better document formatting compatibility between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office, and a Web search engine that defaults to Windows Live. The new agreement will also provide patent covenants that give Linspire users the legal right to use Microsoft's technology on their open source-based systems.

Linspire has a long history of working with both commercial and open source vendors such as Sun, Apple, Intel, and Nvidia to enhance the versatility and usefulness of its distribution with a variety of codecs, drivers, and software. The company also has an online collection of more than 20,000 add-ons and programs that users can download to enhance the distribution's functionality.

Carmony says the new agreement with Microsoft will "help deliver a better Linux" and offer a better experience to its users.

Strange bedfellows?

But given Linspire's rocky history with Microsoft -- a lawsuit in which Linspire lost the right to call its distribution "Lindows" in exchange for million paid from Microsoft's coffers -- they seem unlikely bedfellows. Carmony dispels the notion, though, that there is any lingering bad blood between the companies. The AP quotes Carmony as saying, "For me personally, Linux in its formative years was about, 'The reason you should pick Linux is, it's not Microsoft' [but] I'm beyond that."

When asked what led to his change in thinking, Carmony told Linux.com, "Linux has gotten better. It doesn't need to play that card. It can stand on its own. There are many compelling reasons to choose Linux, besides just 'it's not from Microsoft.' I'd like to see everyone stop beating that drum, as it distracts from the many other benefits of Linux. Also, Linux must operate in the PC ecosystem, and Microsoft is a key part of that ecosystem, as is Apple, IBM, Intel, etc. Linspire needs ALL these partners to work with us. I want Linux to cooperate, collaborate and interoperate. I'm happy that Microsoft feels the same way."

It bears noting, however, that if recent comments by Carmony are any indication, things weren't always so rosy during negotiations between the two companies.

In the November 2006 issue of Linspire Letter, Carmony says, "Linspire has had many meetings with Microsoft to try and solve media, document, and DRM interoperability problems. Our experience has been that Microsoft gives a lot of lip service to wanting to work with open source Linux, but then proceeds to drag their feet and delay in actually delivering anything meaningful. (Does anyone following ODF believe Microsoft's proposed "open standards" are really open, or just self-serving?)"

"Given their history, I'm understandably very skeptical that Microsoft sincerely wants to do much here. They'll do a few inconsequential things, again, to give the impression they're trying to interoperate, but they'll continue to protect the turf that matters most to them; their staggeringly profitable Microsoft Windows operating system and Microsoft Office dominions."

"Follow the money"

In the same newsletter, Carmony's said one of his chief concerns with the Novell/Microsoft agreement was the impact it would have on intellectual property (IP) assurances. "I'm confident that ... when you follow the money, not only will you see a lot flowing from Novell to Microsoft to pay for the IP, but you'll also find lots flowing from Microsoft to Novell, to off set [sic] the IP fees, basically paying Novell to be Microsoft's poster child for IP payments."

According to press materials released by Linspire this week, "Linspire now joins a growing group of open source software (OSS) distributors collaborating with Microsoft on efforts to ... deliver IP assurance to customers and build the bridge between open source and proprietary software."

When asked if Linspire was required to purchase licensing rights from Microsoft or if Microsoft is funding any part of Linspire's development costs, Carmony responded, "We don't disclose financial terms of any of the licensing deals we enter into."

When asked to clarify how the Linspire agreement differs from the one Microsoft entered into with Novell and Xandros, Carmony declined to comment and instead pointed to the current issue of the Linspire Letter, which says "each has had different areas of emphasis. For example, Linspire's collaboration with Microsoft focuses more on desktop and laptop computing, as opposed to servers. I think it's encouraging to see a stronger bridge being built between Linux and the broader ecosystem."

Asked how the agreement addresses the specific needs of Linspire users, Carmony again deferred to the Linspire Letter: "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."

Carmony acknowledges that some Linspire will users bristle at the idea of an open source company doing business with a company that focuses on commercial software. "I respect their choice. Hopefully they'll respect those of us, however, who choose to have Linux interoperate and collaborate with everyone in the PC ecosystem. I want to bring more choice to the desktop PC, not limit, restrict, or stifle choice."

"I was very surprised"

As expected, the announcement was met with some trepidation within the Linspire user community. "I was very surprised, especially since Novell had entered into an agreement with Microsoft a few months ago and [the news] was met with skepticism and very negative reactions from Linux users, who seemed to feel betrayed," says Pollywog, a longtime Linspire user who prefers to be identified as he is known within the community.

Pollywog acknowledges that the new agreement has the potential to benefit both the company and its Linspire users alike. "Users will [have] an operating system that is stable, be able to use their Linux systems alongside Microsoft Windows systems, and perhaps even be able to use Microsoft applications on Linux without having to spend more money for virtualization software. Most Linux users come across media formats which their free software cannot open, so this will also be a thing of the past."

According to Pollywog, however, Linspire has a big hurdle to overcome if it wants to keep the user base it currently has. "Many of the people who now use Linspire and do not welcome this news will decide to change to other distributions," he says.

"I think, though, that people have to have realistic expectations from a commercial Linux distribution. If they want adherence to political or social guidelines, they should probably be using one of the distributions that has a social component as part of the distribution, such as Ubuntu or Debian. Commercial distributions exist primarily for the purpose of making a profit."


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