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The problems with Microsoft's Moonlight solution

Microsoft continues to manacle Novell's Moonlight potential with patent encumbrances.

Novell's Mono team continues to improve its "Microsoft Silverlight on Linux" story, now with the release of Moonlight 1.0, an open-source implementation of Microsoft's Silverlight rich media technology for the Web, as CNET reports. It's a major upgrade to Moonlight and brings it closer to parity with Microsoft's Silverlight. Novell's Miguel de Icaza, the developer behind Mono and Moonlight, relied heavily on working in partnership with Microsoft to deliver the upgrade.

Therein lies both the promise and the peril of Moonlight. Well, one of them. For one thing, due to Microsoft-imposed restrictions, Moonlight still doesn't work with a great deal of the Silverlight content on the Web, a fact pointed out by Computerworld.


An even bigger problem, however, is the fact that Microsoft Silverlight is still far behind Adobe Flash in terms of market share. Microsoft, for its part, claims Silverlight is "not dead yet," but Adobe is probably right to stifle a yawn at its efforts to date. Flash has long worked with Linux because Adobe hasn't had the same anti-Linux fetish that has long plagued Microsoft's Jekyll-and-Hyde attempts to be both a platform company and an application company, with the former competing with Linux but the latter (should be) embracing it.

But the biggest problem is the patent encumbrance that comes with Microsoft-blessed Moonlight and Mono. As Mike Schroepfer, formerly the vice president of Engineering at Mozilla (and now serving that role for Facebook), pointed out at Mix'08 and reported by The Industry Standard:

During the discussion, de Icaza explained that while anyone who downloaded Moonlight from Novell was protected by the company's licensing of Silverlight codecs from Microsoft through the company's own cross-licensing agreement....Schroepfer...then raised the question that if he downloads and then distributes the code for Moonlight, would he get the patent protection?

"There is a patent covenant for anyone that downloads [Moonlight] from Novell," answered de Icaza, who then acknowledged that "as to extending the patents to third parties -- you have to talk to Microsoft."

This answer led Schroepfer to point out the inconsistency between having products that are called open source but are "patent-encumbered."

I don't fault Novell/de Icaza for this, but Microsoft can and must do better. If it actually cares about having Silverlight run on Linux through the Moonlight project - and, frankly, I don't think it does - then it should allow Novell to release Moonlight in a patent-unencumbered manner.

Microsoft's current policy puts Linux users in an uncomfortable position if they actually want to exercise their development rights under Moonlight. The only way to safely do so is under Microsoft's watchful eye/patent covenant.

Microsoft continues to struggle with how to interoperate with open source, but it's larger stumbling block is interoperating with the openness of the Web. Moonlight and the patent encumbrances thereto serve as a constant reminder that Microsoft really doesn't grok the Web, which is about freedom of access and open protocols.

Perhaps Microsoft should read more Lessig [PDF], and less Ballmer.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.