Thursday, May 17, 2007

Thank you, Microsoft

I don't need to add to the unanimous chorus that Microsoft's latest sabre-rattling (on Open Source's alleged infringements of 235 patents) isn't going to go anywhere. I agree that if anything, this campaign is going to sink far faster than the SCO affair.

However, I believe that Microsoft's FUD campaign is going to achieve a few things that would have taken far longer in the normal course, and I thank the company for these:

1. Accelerating the trend towards the GPL version 3 - Since it's now obvious to all (including Novell) that Microsoft's deal with Novell was just intended to set up an example of a "good" patent licensee to initiate the shakedown process that has now been inaugurated, there's a great deal more appreciation of the value of the GPLv3, which will prevent this kind of shady deal in future. If in the process, this license can kill DRM as well, that would be just what the doctor ordered.

2. Increasing the legitimacy/credibility of Open Source in the eyes of corporates - Even the dumbest PHB can see that Linux and other Open Source software must be hurting Microsoft badly to provoke such a high-profile attack. Ergo, there must be something there that's worth looking into.

3. Increasing the probability that software patents will vanish from the landscape, one way or the other - whether by convincing more voters (and their lawmakers) that software patents are a bad idea, or by sparking a "patent armageddon" through counter-strikes by IBM, the Open Invention Network (OIN) or others, or by galvanising a grassroots movement to seek out and invalidate every trivial, obvious or bogus patent, Microsoft must receive due credit for the coming end of software patents.

4. Hastening their own demise - I have maintained for many years now that Microsoft is a dead man walking. A company with only two main products (Windows Client and Office) that at one time contributed over 80% of the company's revenues and profit, with both products under threat from free rivals, has only so much time left before its growth slows and reverses. Once the Wall Street vultures catch on and start banging the drums about Microsoft's bleak prospects, the share price will plummet to the high single digits, shareholders and employees will head for the exits, and it'll be all over but the shouting. The company may go private and shrink to a black dwarf. The company's latest action may or may not have convinced anyone that Open Source violates their patents, but it sure has convinced a lot of people that Microsoft has run out of ways to compete with Open Source, and it's time to look elsewhere. Also, you can push spineless, risk-averse corporate types only so far before they turn and begin to offer resistance. I think the line has just been crossed in boardrooms, from "Open Source is too risky" to "Who do these guys think they're threatening?"

5. Increasing interest in Dell machines with pre-installed Linux - The publicity, negative sentiment towards Microsoft and the new-found cameraderie among technology users (who are being uniformly threatened with litigation) should increase interest in Dell's latest Linux-based offerings. Ubuntu is a worthy Linux distribution, and if it manages to hold up well under rough end-user handling, it should reach a tipping point very fast. Once again, thanks to Microsoft for the free publicity.

So it seems to be true that it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Microsoft may have done the world the biggest favour possible - hasten the advent of Open Source.

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