Microsoft's new Linux gambit

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper explains why SCO's legal battle against IBM--and to a lesser extent the idea behind open-source development--is music to Steve Ballmer's ears.

Listen closely to what Microsoft is not saying about SCO Group's open-source operetta.

Microsoft is not telling corporate managers that the use of open-source applications might land them in hot water with patent attorneys. And Microsoft is not saying that the open-source development community is a hotbed of misappropriation of private property.

This is not because Microsoft disagrees with the above. But it's just so much easier to give the dirty work to SCO.

Ever since SCO filed a $1 billion lawsuit against IBM for allegedly misappropriating Unix technology that wound up in the Linux operating system, rumors have been rife about Microsoft secretly bankrolling the litigation. Oliver Stone has yet to uncover a connection, but conspiracy buffs who already see the hand of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates everywhere have since seized upon Microsoft's deal, announced last earlier this month, to .

Two points to note:

• If SCO is successful, the lawsuit could undercut the gathering momentum behind Linux. Microsoft would have a field day if a court finds that the Linux operating system contains misappropriated code.

• At the very least, the litigation creates a cloud of uncertainty in the minds of information technology managers who are considering using open-source software. The last thing that a chief information officer wants right now is to have to explain to the chief executive why the company's cool new computer system could result in a huge legal tab.

The deal formally allies Microsoft with a company intent on frightening the open-source community into submission. Best of all, the Department of Justice can't accuse Microsoft of putting the muscle on corporate Linux users. Fresh from smoking the peace pipe with Uncle Sam, the last thing that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer needs is his minions to demonstrate anything that smacks of bully boy behavior. Meanwhile, SCO can get away with the rough stuff, while the Redmondians safely hug the moral high ground. ("Oh my, but did you know that code embedded within Linux may have been stolen?") It's the best of both worlds.

Relieved from playing the role of the heavy--at least for now--Microsoft is free to campaign against Linux. In part, this involves playing up the perceived advantages for companies that build their business applications on Windows. But looping back to SCO's contention about stolen code, Microsoft surely will also focus on the benefits of a development model in which a single company controls what goes into the software kernel. (The not-so-subtle message being: Go with Windows and avoid getting sued one day for infringing someone else's patent.)

It's too soon to know whether this will be enough to convince IT managers to stay away from Linux. So far, Microsoft has failed to invent a sure-fire strategy to check the advance of the Penguinistas. A cynic might conclude that what's going on now is less about the protection of intellectual property and more about spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. The question of illegality will ultimately get resolved in the courts. In the meantime, Microsoft is notching up a tactical win.

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