The idea for this story has been cooking in my mind for a while but I kept pushing it away. Now I strongly feel that I should talk about it.
Last week I wrote about two of Microsoft’s recent patent deals with Linux players, bringing to the surface the criticism Microsoft gets from a certain segment of the open source community. And the thread continued this week, as I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people from the open source ‘industry’ as well as the community to get a sense of what they think about all of this.
Here is the what came out of those conversations:
Joining OIN is not the solution
There are many reasons why Microsoft may not join the Open Invention Network (OIN) anytime soon. First of all, if a company doesn’t want to use patents as a weapon, it won’t, whether or not it joins OIN.
At the same time, joining OIN doesn’t guarantee that a company won’t use patents as a weapon. Both Oracle and Google are OIN members and they have locked horns in one of the fieriest battles in the open source world. IBM is one of the founders of OIN and it has also sued companies (like Groupon) over various patents.
So as much as I believe joining OIN sends a positive message, I don’t think that’s _the_ ultimate solution.
Cross licensing is an industry norm
Cross licensing deals are a common practice in many industries. What Microsoft is doing is nothing new or unique. They get more attention because many believe that software or process patents should not exist in the first place. And software patents are a particularly sensitive issue for the open source community. That said, what the community believes at odds with how industry operates.
Patents generate revenue
Microsoft is making a lot of money from patents. According to reports Microsoft may be making as much as $3 billion from patents alone. That’s more than what Red Hat makes in a year. So Microsoft is not going to give up that revenue just to make some people feel good about them.
Cost of patents
If you are a company selling a box with Linux or Android in it, Microsoft may want to sign a patent deal with you. This is likely cheaper than going to court, and that’s why most companies choose to sign a deal. These companies don’t bear the cost of the patent; they shift the cost to customers. They may think of patent fees as the equivalent of the cost of another hardware component going into their devices. It is an easier cost to bear than the uncertain costs of a legal battle, especially against a company with deep pockets.
Developers and companies don’t care
Companies like Canonical, Red Hat and SUSE are close partners of Microsoft. These companies, from what I see, don’t much care about such patent deals. Other than what Novell did in their partnership with Microsoft when they owned SUSE and a limited patent agreement that Red Hat and Microsoft have, Canonical has not signed any such patent deal, as far as I know.
At the same time, every developer I have talked to is excited about Microsoft open sourcing their tools. All they really care about is having more open source software out there.
The most vocal criticism comes from a section of the open source community that blindly hates Microsoft. And there is absolutely nothing that can be done to appease this segment of the community. And I think neither Microsoft nor their partners worry much about this vocal minority.
We need to fix our broken patent system, and until and unless that happens, companies will use patents as a weapons.
Looking at the revenue that patents generate for Microsoft, I don’t see them changing course anytime soon. So there is no point in beating a dead horse. What I would like to see is Microsoft open sourcing more and more of their software and becoming a pure open source company.
The most open source software, the better. Right?