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Microsoft Vs. TomTom: Beating A Dead Horse

The conventional wisdom maintains that a recent Microsoft lawsuit poses a threat to the future of Linux. Here's why the conventional wisdom is wrong.
The conventional wisdom maintains that a recent Microsoft lawsuit poses a threat to the future of Linux. Here's why the conventional wisdom is wrong.Microsoft recently sued TomTom, a Dutch company that makes Linux-based personal navigation device software. The lawsuit focused mostly on TomTom's use of the FAT file system, which Microsoft claims as its own intellectual property.

Although Microsoft has repeatedly stated that various pieces of the Linux software stack infringe its software patents, this was the company's first serious attempt to enforce its claims against a Linux developer.

Rather than risk getting squashed by Microsoft's legal juggernaut, TomTom settled the lawsuit. That bodes ill for other Linux developers -- and especially for those using FAT, which is a key component in many embedded and mobile Linux systems.

Or does it? I think not.

First, let's place this brouhaha in its proper context. Microsoft targeted a small developer that uses Linux to create specialized embedded software for a particular category of mobile devices. TomTom's decision to settle was a prudent business decision, and the settlement itself did not address the validity of Microsoft's patent -- a curious, and very significant, point.

So in the short term, Microsoft didn't gain very much by picking on TomTom. And in the long term, the company's decision to sue could explode in its face.

TomTom may have stepped aside, but some much bigger and better-funded open-source players are now stepping up to the plate. The Open Invention Network, for example, is already pondering a counterattack that could include legal action designed to invalidate Microsoft's FAT patent.

That is no idle threat, since OIN members include tech-industry giants like IBM and Sony.

At the same time, other community-backed organizations, including the Linux Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center, say they are ready to help Linux developers dump FAT in favor of open-source replacement technologies.

Maybe none of this sounds relevant to small-business Linux or open-source software users. Yet a busy small business owner could wind up hearing just half the story and assume -- incorrectly -- that Linux is a risky technology choice.

Stay focused on what really matters: where, when, and how Linux technology can benefit your small business. The open-source community, thanks to the efforts of groups like OIN and the Linux Foundation, has proven its ability to protect itself and its users against these types of noisy, but ultimately pointless, legal threats.