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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Microsoft & Open Source

Microsoft & Open Source movement are traditional antagonists. Just as we thought that Microsoft was extending an olive tree to the open source movement, here comes the news that is upping its ante against the open source movement. Microsoft asserts that one reason free software is of such high quality is that it violates more than 200 of Microsoft's patents. And as a mature company facing unfavorable market trends and fearsome competitors like Google, Microsoft is pulling no punches: It wants royalties. If the company gets its way, free software won't be free anymore.

Microsoft deserves to get fair and reasonable returns on the investments that it made to develop its patent basket. The anti-microsoft sentiment is running dangerously high.While raising all this noise, Microsoft seems to be looking at collecting royalties, like the way it pays Novell, and perhaps not sue an entire agitated open source community and its users. After all OIN itself has powerful backers.

Sometimes buyer power and influence can dictate the course of such moves but lager enterprise and open source adoption look still sticky. Interestingly, in the enterprise space, large consulting & system integrators are taking a cautious approach towards supporting open source software, in order not to upset theirsizeable and profitable revenue stream from implementing and supporting proprietary software. While the realization is there to be more engaged in open source, fact of the matter is that they don't know exactly how, nor do they understand the impact on their business model.
The problem, it appears to me is in the process of patent granting itself.While covering Microsoft's recent frenzy of patents acquisition, I wrote that, it may be time to abolish software patents. Microsoft had filed very high number of patent applications in the US in the last few years - the pace of filing made news: 60 fresh, non obvious patentable ideas every week. Reason for sudden increase in applications - Microsoft found that others file about two patents for every $1 million spent on research and development. Microsoft had not taken an interest in patents in its early years because, as it thought it could rely on copyright. Microsoft says that the courts changed the rules, and Microsoft had to respond like everyone else. Eliminating software patents would give Microsoft another chance to repair its relationship with open-source users. Microsoft has repeatedly pointed out to "intellectual property risk" that corporate customers should take into account when comparing software vendors. This has now led to an interesting situation :On the one side, Microsoft has an overflowing war chest and bulging patent portfolio, ready to fight - or cross-license with - any plaintiff who accuses it of patent infringement. On the other are the open-source developers, without war chest, without patents of their own to use as bargaining chips and without the financial means to indemnify their customer.

I think far reaching changes need to be done in the space of patenting and till such time Microsoft and others are better off by talking and working out reasonable arrangements. Litigations would complicate things further.

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