Put Up Or Shut Up, Microsoft - InformationWeek

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Commentary
11/27/2006
11:16 AM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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Put Up Or Shut Up, Microsoft

I can't decide whether Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been acting on some carefully constructed business strategy, or is just off his meds again. But his threats against companies that run Linux are getting old. When Ballmer blustered that "In a sense you could say anybody who has got Linux in their data center today sort of has an undisclosed balance sheet liability," he probably intended to strike fear into the hearts of companies running Linux servers. But instead it was one of those acutely

I can't decide whether Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been acting on some carefully constructed business strategy, or is just off his meds again. But his threats against companies that run Linux are getting old. When Ballmer blustered that "In a sense you could say anybody who has got Linux in their data center today sort of has an undisclosed balance sheet liability," he probably intended to strike fear into the hearts of companies running Linux servers. But instead it was one of those acutely embarrassing social moments, like when a friend falls off a barstool and begins saying things he'll regret in the morning.If I were a Microsoft stockholder (which I'm pretty sure I'm not) I'd begin to worry. This isn't the first time Ballmer has sounded like a drunken bully with his own customers. Two years ago at a Microsoft-sponsored event for Asian government leaders held in Singapore, Ballmer tossed off a citation to a study that ". . . Linux violates over 228 patents." The author of the study immediately denied the claim and Microsoft's PR department worked overtime to deny that Ballmer had been threatening anybody, but the damage was done -- mostly to Ballmer's credibility.

This time, Ballmer's sound-bite moment came on the heels of Microsoft's deal with Novell. The software giant agreed to protect Novell's Suse Linux users against patent infringement claims from Microsoft. Ballmer cited that agreement to bolster his threat, saying that "They've appropriately compensated Microsoft for our intellectual property, which is important to us."

Just as in Singapore, the cited source immediate refuted Ballmer's claim: Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian wrote in an open letter posted on Novell's site, "Importantly, our agreement with Microsoft is in no way an acknowledgment that Linux infringes upon any Microsoft intellectual property. To claim otherwise is to further sow fear, uncertainty and doubt, and does not offer a fair basis for competition."

(And just let me make sure I understand Ballmer's argument here. The agreement calls for Novell to pay Microsoft $40 million for its agreement not to sue Suse customers. Microsoft, in turn, agreed to pay Novell $440 million for coupons entitling Microsoft customers to a year's worth of maintenance and support on SUSE Linux. So apparently the value of Microsoft's intellectual property to Microsoft is not just a negative number, it's a hugely negative number.)

A pattern is emerging here. Ballmer threatens users. The weapon he tries to use misfires. The resulting damage is done mostly to Microsoft, rather than to its target. This was fun to watch the first couple of times (who could forget Ballmer's embarrassing all-iPod-owners-are-thieves rant and subsequent apology of 2004?), but it's getting boring.

It's time for Microsoft to put up or shut up. No more cheap FUD, please. If the company actually holds patents it thinks cover parts of the Linux code, it should file lawsuits to protect its intellectual property. (There may be some problems with that strategy, of course. Lawsuits against Linux don't have much of a track record of success. And lawsuits cost a lot more than cheap threats. Microsoft's stockholder's might want to consider SCO's success, as one example.) Otherwise, it should spare us this periodic embarrassment.

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