As part of its $135 million investment in ailing software maker Corel, announced last week, Microsoft has secured an avenue for translating key parts of its recently announced ".Net" software architecture for the Linux operating system.
As spelled out in a regulatory filing issued by Corel on Wednesday, Microsoft has the option of directing Corel to translate some or all of the .Net framework from its Windows operating system to Linux.
Microsoft's .Net initiative aims to spread computing jobs across interconnected servers so central computers instead of desktops handle most software tasks. It is targeted at making Microsoft's existing software available over the Internet to traditional PCs and devices such as cell phones and handheld computers.
Microsoft rivals, such as Sun Microsystems and Oracle, have long touted the vision of tying all computing devices to the Internet.
Rumors have abounded about Microsoft's interest in Linux, a rival to the software giant's Windows operating system. Microsoft has vehemently denied plans to shift any of its software to Linux or to any operating system other than Windows, however.
If the Linux version of .Net goes ahead, Microsoft must give Corel access to the product's source code, or original programming instructions, the filing said. In addition, Corel will assign 20 full-time programmers and 10 testers to the project.
While there's no guarantee Microsoft will move its software to Linux, clearly the investment has brought Microsoft one step closer to the open-source challenger.
"There will be some times when (customers) need to do it (.Net) on other platforms," Jim Ewel, vice president of Microsoft's Windows.Net server group, told CNET News.com on Thursday. "We definitely are aware that customers will have different heterogeneous environments. But primarily we are focused on Windows."
A Microsoft spokesman said the company currently has no plans to exercise the option with Corel.
"Corel is doing a lot of Linux work and we might be interested down the line. In case we ever need to, we have something in our back pocket," said Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan. "But we don't exercise (every) option in contracts, so I wouldn't read too much into it."
"Microsoft has an option to port .Net to Linux if they choose to develop a Linux strategy," said Corel spokeswoman Louise Hanlon.
The Securities and Exchange Commission filing states that "Corel hereby grants Microsoft an option for Corel to Port some portion or all of the .Net Framework from the Windows Platform to the Linux Platform."
If the work goes ahead, Microsoft will own the software--in other words, Corel essentially has been hired to do the work--the company said while detailing Microsoft's investment in Corel.
Microsoft has the option to charge Corel and any other company royalties or fees to distribute the Linux version of .Net, the filing said. Corel has the option to do the work for three years.
In a way, Corel is the ideal candidate for the job. It's had Windows software for years but also has grown familiar with Linux in the past two years. However, Corel's Linux experience isn't nearly as deep as that of other Linux companies, such as Red Hat, which have been using the software for years.
Corel has offered a version of Linux for desktop computers for nearly a year and has brought over much of its office software, such as WordPerfect and Corel Draw. It's also been working on a server version of Linux. And like Sun Microsystems, Applix and Microsoft, it's been working on making its office software available as a service over the Internet instead of just a program that runs on a desktop machine.
Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer said supporting Linux would be a smart move for Microsoft. Detractors have complained that while Microsoft touted a vision of software and services over the Net, the vision was limited to Microsoft technology.
"It's really a good thing for Microsoft. Microsoft wants to do this; they want the image of .Net being cross-platform," Plummer said. "One thing people complained about (with) .Net when it was announced was that it was another attempt by Microsoft to get people to use their stuff. This can be their attempt to get less focus on their single-platform strategy. They can now say, 'We run on multiple platforms and Linux is the hot platform.'"
But Plummer said moving Linux to Microsoft's .Net technology will be a difficult task because Corel will have to replicate many of Microsoft's underlying technology functions, called application programming interfaces (APIs).
Microsoft, on the other hand, would reap the benefits of supporting Linux without having to do the heavy lifting, Plummer said.
Hedging bets by moving .Net beyond Windows raises more possibilities than just Linux--notably, Sun's Solaris operating system, which is popular in building Internet infrastructure.
George Paolini, Sun's vice president of technology advocacy, said that to his knowledge Microsoft hasn't approached Sun. If they did, Sun likely wouldn't be interested, he said. "At the end of the day, we'd have to view that with an element of caution because .Net is so dependent on Windows to make it work," he said.
Plummer said Linux support won't hurt Windows 2000 operating system sales in the short term. Supporting a second operating system may help Microsoft if a court-ordered breakup of the company is upheld on appeal.
"Maybe this is part of their Plan B. If they get broken up, they would have implemented .Net on a different operating system than Windows if Windows were taken away," Plummer said. "They would have a presence in the Linux world."
News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.