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LinuxWorld: Behind Enemy Lines

Bruce Perens holding forth at LinuxWorld over the growing software patent threat

Microsoft was the ghost at LinuxWorld--nowhere to be seen, but haunting all corners of the Boston conference.

Yesterday, renowned open-source advocate Bruce Perens held his annual LinuxWorld talk on the state of open source software. Perens is one of those rare individuals who has both legal and technical expertise, and understands how the two interact. Plus he's a dynamic speaker, so he always has a few provocative insights.

Last year, he warned about the growing threat software patents had on the open-source community, and for software innovation in general. This year's talk hit the same theme, with about equal optimism. Perens sees the possibility of serious trouble ahead for the Linux community.

As proof, he cited a recent Forbe's interview with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. In that article, Ballmer failed to convince the reporter that the company had no plans of bringing patent lawsuits against the creators of the Linux kernel.

With sufficient force, the monetarily mighty Microsoft could 'stop all new innovation in the Linux space,' Perens said. The company could use its arsenal of software patents to shut down the work of open-source developers. 'Open-source people wouldn't [financially] survive one day in court,' he said. Such a bold move would hurt Microsoft as well, but it would be 'survivable damage,' for the company.

So as Windows Server 2003 continues to battle Linux for the remains of the Unix server market, what is actually holding Ballmer back from rounding up the lawyers in a fit of competitive frenzy? Perens opined that it was Microsoft's attempt to win the European Union over on adopting more favorable software patenting laws. 'They won't create bad news that would sink their own legislative efforts' Perens speculated.

Not everyone at LinuxWorld was down on Gates and Co., though. Jon Walker, chief technical officer at desktop migration software provider Versora, of Santa Barbara, Calif., came to the company's defense. He was making a presentation on the differences between the Open Document Format and Microsoft's own OpenXML office format.

After the presentation, a member of the audience asked Walker what he thought of the recent news that Microsoft joined the working group that will oversee the process of making ODF an ISO standard, the International Committee for Information Technology Standards' V1 technical committee for Office and Publishing Systems Interface group. After that announcement, speculation ran rampant that Microsoft only joined to deliberately derail the process.

Walker said that he found that unlikely. First of all, it is too late in the ODF ISO process to do much damage. Moreover, he noted that companies frequently join the standards groups for competing products. Microsoft simply 'may want someone who has intimate knowledge of the standard,' he said. Such knowledge may help when the companies plans its own strategy.

'I think that [Microsoft does] a lot of things with good or at least not evil intentions that are interpreted negatively,' he said. Such is the price that powerful companies must pay for their dominant presence, we suppose.

Update (4/10/06): Computer guru Paul Graham has offered a less pessimistic view on software patents than Perens, in a recently published essay, Are Software Patents Evil?. '[N]o one will sue you for patent infringement till you have money, and once you have money, people will sue you whether they have grounds to or not,' he wrote.

On the possibility of Microsoft suing open source developers, Graham added: 'I doubt Microsoft would ever be so stupid. They'd face the mother of all boycotts. And not just from the technical community in general; a lot of their own people would rebel,' he wrote.

Posted by Joab Jackson

Posted by Brad Grimes, Joab Jackson on Apr 06, 2006 at 9:39 AM


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