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Exec Says IBM Won't Use Linux Patents As Weapon

Senior VP Nick Donofrio pledged not to use his company's patent portfolio against Linux--and called on other companies to do the same.

Nick Donofrio, IBM's senior VP of technology and manufacturing, pledged Wednesday not to use his company's extensive patent portfolio against Linux, a line that drew applause from attendees at the LinuxWorld conference.

Few in the audience actually believed IBM had ever contemplated such a move. Rather, it was his follow up line that carried the punch. "We urge other companies to make the same statement," he said--a remark that many took to be aimed at Linux critic and competitor, Microsoft.

Whether patented software functionality will ever provide the basis for a suit aimed at Linux is a subject of frequent speculation among Linux backers and users.

Almost lost in the applause was a qualifier to Donofrio's statement that IBM wouldn't resort to its patents. As the crowd responded, he added, "unless forced to do so," an apparent reference to the fact that IBM is being sued by SCO Group Inc. for having allegedly donated code to Linux that was SCO intellectual property. Donofrio didn't describe any circumstances in which IBM might assert its own patent rights.

Donofrio said the open-source movement was helping move forward an age of unprecedented discoveries. Linux and other open-source code are helping power innovation in pharmaceuticals, genome research, nanotechnology and supercomputing.

"No single vendor, no matter how large, can claim a monopoly on innovation," he said.

Open-source code is providing a common software infrastructure, allowing budgets and efforts to shift more toward innovation. Wider access to low-cost computing resources will tend to generate more-level playing fields in many industries. Business leaders "will have to rethink what creates competitive advantage," he predicted. "Linux is not about free; it's about freedom--it's owned by no one; it's owned by everyone."

At the same time, the United States can't claim it is the only society capable of generating computer skills and the highly paid jobs associated with rapid technological advance. Good jobs are moving overseas, and the answer to the problem "won't be found in raising trade barriers," he said.

"This competition may turn paradoxically on how well societies embrace open collaboration across borders," he added. If the United Statescontinues to seed the world with open-source code and lower the cost of entry to competitive businesses, it may in the long run find jobs created here catering to new markets abroad.

Donofrio's keynote followed an IBM announcement Tuesday that it was donating its Cloudscape Java database system to the Apache Software Foundation, where it is expected to become an open source project called Derby.

Cloudscape was built by a startup company of the same name that was purchased by Informix. IBM acquired Cloudscape when it purchases Informix two years ago. "Over the last 18 months, there's been a groundswell of use within IBM" by 4,000 Java programmers, said Janet Perna, general manager of IBM data-management solutions.

Cloudscape is not another potential, standalone open source database system, like MySQL or PostGres. Rather, it's an embeddable database designed to slip into unobtrusively into Java applications, managing data without the set-up or supervision of a database administrator. "The administration is built into the application," Perna said.

As a result, Cloudscape is now built into 70 IBM products, including Tivoli system management and WebSphere Portal Server.

IBM will build a commercial product around Cloudscape but keep in close step with the Apache Foundation's continued development of the system, Perna said. "We want to build a large community around it," said Greg Stein, chairman of the foundation.

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