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1/23/2007
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The Microsoft/Novell Deal: Has It Divided The Linux Community?

When Microsoft and Novell announced that they would work together, Linux enthusiasts were shocked. How has the agreement affected the open source community, and can it recover?

In November, Microsoft and Linux vendor Novell knocked the software industry for a loop with their multifaceted, multimillion-dollar business agreement unveiled. However, the biggest effect may be on Linux, the open source software operating environment that many companies (and some consumers) are increasingly adopting as an alternative to Microsoft's proprietary but pervasive Windows operating system.

Initially announced on news conference Nov. 2, the deal called for Microsoft, long seen as an enemy by many Linux advocates, to start working hand-in-hand with Novell, producer of the SuSE Linux operating system, in areas that included licensing, support, and joint research and development around Windows/Linux interoperability.

Also under the agreement, the two software makers inked a software patents covenant stating that Microsoft won't be able to sue Novell's customers for any potential infringements of Microsoft's patents, and Novell won't be able to sue Microsoft's customers for potential infringements on Microsoft's patents.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars will change hands between Microsoft and Novell over the next three years for software licensing and patent protection, with a net balance of $118 million going to Novell.

The deal does have supporters among industry analysts, ISVs, and VARs, who foresee benefits to Novell and to the advance of Linux in the enterprise. "Novell needs to look at its opportunity to gain Linux customers from highly Microsoft-loyal accounts. And when you consider the money, there'll be a lot of it going into Novell's coffers," says Raven Zachary, an analyst with The 451 Group.

Recognition by Microsoft lends more credibility to Novell as a second major Linux distributor (behind industry leader Red Hat Software), according to Adam Braunstein, an analyst at the Robert Frances Group. "No enterprise customer wants to get locked into a single distribution," Braunstein says.

The Linux Community Reacts
But what about the developers who create the actual Linux code and who form the heart of what's known as the open source community? How will they be affected? As the calendar turns the corner into 2007, is this community of ISV and corporate developers, already split into hundreds of different distributions, only becoming more divided? Or conversely, is this community growing even more unified through joint opposition to the deal?

So far, the answer seems to be yes on both counts. By and large, Linux developers see the deal as an unwelcome intrusion by Microsoft, a huge and unabashedly proprietary vendor, into the open source world, where software development is highly collaborative, a lot of code is available free of charge, and vendor business models are frequently based more on service contracts than on software licensing.

Linux organizations that sounded disapproval for the Microsoft/Novell plan range from Red Hat to smaller Linux distributors such as Linspire and Mandriva, and open source projects such as Samba, a group that includes even some Novell employees.

"I obviously can't speak for the entire community, but I see more banding together [against Microsoft] than divisiveness," said Nicholas Petreley, a professional open source consultant, author, and editor, and the creator of VarLinux.org.

But beyond shared distaste for Microsoft's perceived intrusion, reactions within the Linux community vary, from a cautious watchfulness to a conviction that the deal represents an intentional ploy by Microsoft to destroy the open source movement by pitting one Linux distributor — namely, Novell — against the rest of the Linux community. "[It] is clearly true [that] the agreement sets SuSE apart from the rest of the crowd. The Microsoft message here is clear. 'I can pick and choose among the players and bribe whomever I want,' " contends Francois Banchilhon, CEO of the French-based Mandriva.

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