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Serdar Yegulalp
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Does Microsoft's TomTom Beating Bode Ill For Open Source?

Open source folks are nervous about a Microsoft lawsuit against in-car GPS maker TomTom, allegedly because of possible implications for Linux.

Open source folks are nervous about a Microsoft lawsuit against in-car GPS maker TomTom, allegedly because of possible implications for Linux.

Most of the issues seem to revolve around several patents that Microsoft filed regarding file systems. Two patents cover the use of the 8.3 file-naming convention, designed for backward compatibility between file systems that support both long and short file names. Another handles a file system for flash memory, so that a block-programmable flash device can be handled as if it were a byte- or bit-addressable file system.

So are these lawsuits against Linux or some GPL software per se? It's not clear, partly because the suit is directed at TomTom's implementations of Linux and other GPL technologies, and not at any other agency. Much of the speculation revolves around this being the tip of the sword about to run through the FOSS community, etc., but I seriously doubt Microsoft would attempt to do something that stupid and self-destructive this late in the game.

A few things are worth noting. One is that Microsoft claims it's been trying to reach an agreement with TomTom for more than a year regarding these patent claims and that it's falling back on a lawsuit as a last resort. The other is that back in 2004, TomTom ran into trouble with the gpl-violations project, apparently for modifying the Linux kernel in its TomTom GO product and not publishing the changes back to the community. Based on that, it sounds like TomTom has a generally bad history of dealing with intellectual property, period.

If this is more TomTom's fault than Microsoft's, fine. The problem, again, is that with Microsoft, people don't think that there's a clear line as to what's safe to do and what's not -- whether or not doing something wholly innocuous could get you sued. It's made all the more complicated by Microsoft's recent strides toward the open source community, where it's putting on a more conciliatory face and trying to attract many of the very people it was scaring off.

It'd be in Microsoft's best interest to come out and say, definitively, what this means vis-à-vis Linux and FOSS generally. Of course, there's always the chance that even it doesn't know -- which is in itself scary.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on overhauling Microsoft. Download the report here (registration required).

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