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Behind the scenes in Microsoft's war against Linux

Microsoft continues to forge back-room patent deals with second-tier companies in its attempts to discredit the open-source operating system.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
2 min read

Even as Microsoft has slipped into the mainstream of open source by embedding it in its products and adopting open-source strategies for services such as customer relationship management, it continues its subversive fight against Linux.

Linux is different, you see. Open source, as Microsoft is starting to recognize, is just another part of its ecosystem, one that it must support, if it wants Windows to continue to be a first-class computing citizen.

The open-source operating system, however, is competition--Microsoft's top competition, if CEO Steve Ballmer's words are to be taken at face value.

In this context, Microsoft's recent patent deal with Brother makes sense. Otherwise, as ZDNet UK opines, it's a deal that causes much head-scratching:

This time, the lucky donor of cash for secrets is Brother, which will now be allowed to use Microsoft patents to make printers.

As Microsoft doesn't make printers--indeed, (it) doesn't even make printer drivers--it is an interesting exercise to try and guess what's actually happened...(Microsoft) sends in the lads to midsize companies (that) would really suffer from a long court case, and who cares about that lovely legal fact of intellectual-property life: paying off a determined litigant is often cheaper than winning...If Microsoft cares about looking like a company more interested in innovating openly than doing closed deals, then it should be open on details such as which patents are involved.

Otherwise, Microsoft's trick of gaining revenue from licensing open-source software behind closed doors will smell more and more like extortion.

Slowly, behind the scenes, Microsoft continues to try to portray Linux as risky and Microsoft's patent coverage as insurance. Given that the company selling the insurance is also the one threatening a lawsuit, however, Microsoft needs to step very carefully to avoid the "extortionist" label. I personally believe that it has already crossed the line and needs to get back to competition between products, not lawyers.

Microsoft Windows competes well against Linux. The company doesn't need patent trickery. It has a compelling, valuable ecosystem that it can use against Linux. Why does it continue these Linux kidney punches, of which Microsoft claims it has closed more than 500 deals?

Perhaps Microsoft is the company with something to hide? The last time I checked, Linux was open source, with everything available for public inspection. In the Brother patent deal, as in all the others, Microsoft has made absolutely nothing available for public inspection to test the veracity of its claims. That's a sign of weakness, not of strength.

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