Open source vendors fight back against Microsoft patent claims

Microsoft’s recent efforts to improve relationships with some in the open source community could be seriously undermined by this week’s claims that Linux infringes 235 Microsoft patents.

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Microsoft’s recent efforts to improve relationships with some in the open source community could be seriously undermined by this week’s claims that Linux infringes 235 Microsoft patents.

The claim sparked fear that lawsuits could be looming, although Microsoft officials insist they want licensing agreements, not epic court battles.

"We're not out to attack any open-source companies," said Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy and director of Microsoft's work with open-source projects, in an interview on Wednesday.

That has done little to pacify concerned open source advocates. "They want open-source software companies to like them and tell everyone what a good friend to open-source software Microsoft is," said Dave Rosenberg, CEO of MuleSource, an open-source middleware vendor. "But it's clear that the goal is not to embrace but to destroy."

Microsoft's latest revelation may cause companies not to consider open-source software, even though the company's patent claims are vague, Rosenberg said.

Alfresco Software, which supports an open-source content management system, worked with Microsoft on a major customer integration involving SQL Server, said Matt Asay, vice president of business development.

But patent FUD -- fear, uncertainty and doubt -- will be a major inhibitor for Alfresco in getting close with Microsoft in the future, Asay said.

"How can any company -- open source or proprietary -- feel comfortable working with a company that has taken such an aggressive, pay-us-or-else approach to its patent portfolio?" Asay said.

While Microsoft executives such as Hilf may have good intentions toward open source, many may not, Asay said. "Bill is a small outpost in a large company that clearly has a genetic predisposition to despise and fear open source. And they're not ready to love yet. Ballmer? No way."

The software giant has recently tried to change its approach toward the open-source community since CEO Steve Ballmer labelled Linux a "cancer" in 2001.

Microsoft has hired seasoned industry pros to staff its Port 25 lab, dedicated to studying Linux and how Microsoft can interoperate with open source. It recently worked with Mozilla, backer of the Firefox browser, to produce a plug-in that makes Windows Media Player work better in the software.

Hank Janssen, a group programme manager who works in Port 25, said at one time he never thought he'd work for Microsoft. Janssen worked for many years in AT&T's laboratories on Unix technology.

Janssen got a warm reception from developers who want a better dialogue with Microsoft when he went to the ApacheCon Europe 2007 conference, dedicated to the Apache Web server, in Amsterdam earlier this month.

"I would say that the majority of the open-source software people I talk to are very pragmatic and show great interest in starting a dialogue around how we can work together," Janssen said.

The patent claim, however, could reinforce the perception that Microsoft is a bully, said Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, senior researcher at United Nations University-Merit in Maastricht in the Netherlands, where he studies open-source software usage.

But Ghosh thinks it's hard to tell if the claims will inhibit business deals between open-source companies and Microsoft without more details about the patents in question.

Several development projects are under way that aim to make open-source software work better with Microsoft technologies. Microsoft's deal with Novell calls for co-development of virtualisation technologies to enable Suse Linux to run better on Windows and vice versa. SugarCRM, an open-source customer relationship management vendor, is also collaborating with Microsoft to improve interoperability

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