Microsoft and Novell: the other shoe drops

Well, well, well.. that didn't take too long, did it?

You may recall the Microsoft Corporation and Novell and their Linux division SuSE announced they were going to be working together on various project to help their respective products work better together. In a nutshell, Microsoft announced that the two companies were in a US$440 million deal in which Microsoft promised not to sue Novell for alleged IP infringement, and Novell would work on integrating Windows as part of its virtualization system (presumably Xen). Of that $440 million, Novell/SuSE was to "give back" $40 million as an "IP License" fee to Microsoft.

Fast forward to this week, and suddenly Steve Balmer declares the all Linux users, except those who are Novell/SuSE customers, are "patent crooks" according to a story just released by LinuxWorld. According to Balmer, Novell's entering into the deal was itself an "admission of guilt" that Linux has illegally using Microsoft's alleged intellectual property.

There's an old joke in the computer industry from back in the 1980's when IBM was rumored to be interested in buying Apple Computer that went like this: Question:What's Apple plus IBM?   Answer: IBM. It's surprising that a company with as much history as Novell wasn't smart enough to see that the only reason Microsoft would be interested in any kind of partnership with then was as a lever with which to beat the Linux community. Microsoft plus anything equals Microsoft.

If we look at the reality of the IT landscape in the world right now, we're at at an interesting inflection point in history:

  • Hardware is cheap
  • Bandwidth is almost too cheap to meter
  • Development frameworks are plentiful, powerful and so easy to use 15 year olds can write world-class software
  • Development costs are almost free, and
  • High quality operating systems are plentiful and, if you choose to use them, free.

Not too long ago the OS was the "big deal" in the land of computing. This used to be because, frankly, there wasn't that much we could do with computers beyond word process, and spreadsheets. Before the commercialization of the Internet and widespread dial-up and then broadband access computers were something that you worked on. Emphasis on the word worked Not so any more, now the focus is back where it belongs: on what your software actually does, rather than what the underlying platform that runs it is. OSes have truly become commodities. Unless you're are one of those people who still only touch a computer when you;re working, computing is now about... well about just about everything we do. At work, at play, on vacation, in the car, we're all about using applications.

From a development and innovation standpoint, this is very interesting... what it means is that the focus of all of our attention (unless we're OS developers) should be on making stuff that real people want to use! Gosh, what a concept! From Microsoft's perspective this is an utter disaster. Microsoft's bread an butter is basically all about its Office platform and from annual license and upgrade fees from corporate users of Windows/Windows Server. Its where all the real money Microsoft makes comes from. Sure they make money from WiNCE and all their online properties, but the real cash in in Office and Windows/Windows Server.

If we look at the universe Microsoft has constructed, all of its development is all about one thing: Integration into the Windows platform. It has committed so much to that brand that everything else is what economists might call an "externality." We would call it an "afterthought." From a development perspective it means that Microsoft's focus seems always to be turned toward how to monetize its investment in windows; what the leaves off the table is most of the opportunities in the world where Windows is just the wrong solution. It's too big, too un-secure, too expensive ...and it's not designed to work and play well with with change. Microsoft has painted itself into a corner, and there's no way out. Well, except by trying to beat up the faster, smarter kids who have realized that agility and smarts in terms of creation of new applications is where the future is at.

Why Get Involved with Novell?

Clearly Microsoft needs to find a way to be able to play in this new landscape where a couple of caffeine enhanced 20 year olds can create multi-billion dollar businesses, the question is how...? Partnering with a Linux vendor seems like a good idea if your goal is to create an environment where you could eventually de-couple your applications (read: Office) from your aging OS infrastructure.

If there's on thing that these Linux and Unix folks have show themselves to be, it's technology chameleons. A Linux, *BSD or Unix box can run every known networking protocol from AppleTalk and Xerox's XNS to DECnet right along TCP/IP and can emulate other computers with systems such as VMware or old mainframes like the PDP-10 or virtualize their own hardware with systems like Xen. If Microsoft could just get Novell to help them make their applications more mobile (read: runnable under Linux) that would give them some breathing room to figure out how to become a more agile company...

However, its not all that cut and dried: while you're trying to make all these changes, the world (and your competitors) will not stand still and let you catch up. The latest OpenOffice release is a very complete and compatible clone of Microsoft Office. MySQL, PosteSQL are eating your lunch in the mid-office database space... and then there are all those "kids" with their bright ideas and their startups...

So What's a MegaCorp to Do?

The bottom line is, if you're Microsoft, you try to play all sides against the middle. Also know as "throw something against the wall and see what sticks." In this case Microsoft saw an opportunity to help it get some traction in the LInux space on two fronts: 1) virtualization and 2) using its deal with Novell/SuSE to try to bludgeon other Linux vendors like RedHat.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, that dog won't hunt. We're not living in the good old days where it was either Microsoft's way or the highway when it comes to OSes. Developers, business and end-users have lots of choices now. It's very clear now, especially after the SCO fiasco that if Microsoft had any bullets in its intellectual property gun it would have used them by now.

The real takeaway from both the Microsoft/Novell Deal and Balmer's latest bluster is that Microsoft is coming to the realization is that it now lives in the real world with the rest of us. World domination isn't a given, and it it wants to survive it should shut up an innovate like the rest of us. Pulling the bully card just makes you a bully; it doesn't make you smarter than the 20 somthings, it's not an innovation and it doesn't add anything to your P&L.

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