November 3, 2006

Novell talks about the Microsoft deal

Author: Joe Barr

The Microsoft/Novell deal was a prime topic of conversation at my LUG meeting last night, just as it was everywhere else Linux enthusiasts gather: IRC channels, mailing lists, wikis, and blogs were busy with chatter about the issue. There were opinions everywhere, but details and facts were in short supply, so I went straight to the horse's mouth to get the word from Novell.

While the questions ranged from "is this the death of (pick one from among Linux, SUSE, Microsoft, or free software)?" to whether the pact violates the GPL, all the conversations were fueled by a higher degree of excitement, and even some fear, than ordinary discussions.

The press was ablaze with the sounds of wonder, too. Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, was reported to be concerned about the legality of the agreements. Moglen was not at all mollified by Microsoft's pledge not to take legal action against individual, non-commercial developers, for patent infringement.

Moglen says that the requirement to pay a royalty goes against the GPL. "If you make an agreement which requires you to pay a royalty to anybody for the right to distribute GPL software, you may not distribute it under the GPL." He added that Section 7 of the GPL "requires that you have, and pass along to everybody, the right to distribute software freely and without additional permission."

I spoke with Bruce Lowery, director of global communications, and Justin Steinman, director of product marketing, Linux & open platform solutions, Friday afternoon to clarify a few issues from yesterday's bombshell announcement. Here's what I learned.

Lowery says that portions of the formal agreements between Microsoft and Novell may be made public within the next four days. An FTC filing is required if the deal has a material impact on Novell's earnings. Assuming that such a filing occurs, however, the level of detail to be included has not been determined. So we may know more about those agreements next week, or we may not.

I also asked Steinman how the collaborative works which Microsoft and Novell have agreed to work on together to improve virtualization, management, and open formats will be licensed. He says that Novell's contributions will be open.

"A lot of what of what we're actually doing are enhancements to our own individual open source and proprietary pieces of software, to make them work better together. The enhancements that we make to SUSE Enterprise Linux will be open source code. The improvements that Microsoft makes to Windows to make it work better with Linux will be proprietary code."

When I asked if that wouldn't allow other distributions to take advantage of what Novell is doing, Steinman replied, "Sure. But you know what? That's the price of being in the Linux business."

Steinman stressed the importance of Microsoft's endorsement of SUSE Linux, so I asked if that were the big gain for Novell. He said the endorsement is good, plus "the fact that Microsoft will be purchasing 70,000 subscriptions of priority or basic support per year, for the next five years."

My final question was whether or not Novell was concerned that SUSE Linux will be shunned by the free software -- or portions of the open source -- communities for doing a deal with the devil?

Steinman answered, "I think right now the community is having a little bit of an emotional response, after all the years of aggression, I think after the emotion dies down, and they look at this with a cold, rational eye, they will see this will be very good for open source software."

Curiously enough, Novell's main competition in the Linux arena, Red Hat Linux, agrees with that position. Red Hat posted its opinion on the issue on its Website. The bottom line? Red Hat says "It was inevitable. The best technology has been acknowledged."


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