Microsoft And SUSE, Mozilla And Google: Strange Bedfellows

Redmond cashes in on Linux licenses, while Mozilla creates a new open source mobile operating system.
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InformationWeek editor-in-chief Rob Preston, the master of excising my mixed metaphors before you can enjoy them, is away, so I will take this small liberty: It is raining cats and dogs, which also happen to be sleeping together. By which I mean that Microsoft renewed its deal to work with SUSE Linux, and Mozilla is creating a new mobile OS to compete, perhaps, with Google's Android. Next thing you know, Apple will invite Eric Schmidt to join its board of directors.

But seriously, folks.

It is maddening, isn't it? The marketing gurus like to call this "co-opetition," a nasty word made up to explain away this unhealthy practice whereby one company (let's say HP) does hundreds of millions of dollars of business with another (say Oracle), and then they go at each other in court like ... how did InformationWeek's Art Wittman put it? Oh, like an "in-the-street catfight." The court filings from each side are creative romps, packed with wonderfully flamboyant language and accusations. This is what's known as friends without benefits.

Let's get this Microsoft story straight: Microsoft resells licenses for SUSE Linux, a competitive offering, and in exchange, Microsoft doesn't sue those particular customers--Microsoft, as InformationWeek's Paul McDougall reminds us, claims that Linux infringes on some of its patents. Nor will Microsoft sue SUSE. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

A history refresher: SUSE belonged to Novell, once a fierce rival with Microsoft. Before Eric Schmidt served as Novell's CEO, he headed up software engineering at Sun, which begat Java and is now part of Oracle which happens to be suing Google for infringing on Java in Android. And I haven't even scratched the surface of this irony.

There's a simple explanation for all of this strange behavior. Customers demand it. (Oh, them.)

Last week Lenovo, in introducing its new Android tablets which looked and smelled very much like many other Android tablets on the market, emphasized that it had talked to well over 100 customers in creating the new devices. It's every marketers dream to be able to point to customer-driven product launches. But it's absurd to build a product around focus-group input, or consensus, or--today's fashionable term--crowdsourcing.

Customers have a nasty habit of telling us what they want through action, not friendly chats and polls.

Microsoft didn't ask its customers whether it should partner with SUSE, whether it should resell a competitor's offering. Customers told Microsoft to do it, or Microsoft saw an opportunity to embrace (tightly) a technology that it feared.

This brings us to our next question: why would Mozilla, makers of Firefox, and beneficiaries of Google's largesse (specifically, Google pays Mozilla millions for including its search bar in Firefox) create Boot to Geko (B2G), a new open source mobile operating system? After all, the only thing Google did was to create a competitive browser. To make matters more interesting, some of B2G will be built around the Android kernel. Not the Java part, upon which Oracle is suing Google.

Mozilla, InformationWeek's Tom Claburn notes, will continue to develop Firefox for Android, and there's already speculation about whether B2G may be applicable as a Web-based desktop operating system. You know, like ChromeOS.

Mozilla and Google are not asking customers whether any of this matters. Today it doesn't. The world isn't begging for yet another mobile operating system, nor Web-based operating systems to replace Windows. Although it's always good to see new models challenge old ways, Windows isn't dying anytime soon. Still, give us something more compelling and you never know.

Google, like Apple, has made a habit of building what it thinks customers might like. Sometimes Google gets an earful, like the drumbeat of users right now who want Google to allow pseudonyms in Google+. As InformationWeek's Tom Claburn poignantly reminds us: "Twitter, by virtue of a name policy that tolerates pseudonyms, has helped overthrow tyrannies."

Nothing like a little uprising among friends

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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