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Microsoft and Novell's concession to tech reality

perspective CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the companies' overdue pact puts to rest an increasingly stale IT dispute.

perspective I knew that this would be a strange day.

On the ride over to Microsoft's impromptu press conference, the taxi driver began riffing about how rainy days were good for sleeping in and watching porn.

A few minutes later, I had a front-row seat to watch Steve Ballmer publicly put the final coda on a decade of dispute in the computer industry as he posed for a handshake with Ron Hovsepian, his opposite number at Novell.

Microsoft and Novell? Talk about your odd couples. If you need a historical reference point, think Hatfields and McCoys, Yankees and Red Sox, cats and dogs.

This is a big step, one that previous management teams at Microsoft and Novell may not have been brave enough to take.

In the 1980s and 1990s, these two companies were locked in what seemed to be a fight to the death as Novell's then-CEO, , led his company on a desperate--and losing--mission to dethrone Microsoft.

Now their two CEOs were on stage at a posh San Francisco hotel mugging for the cameras, and talking about patent peace and their plans for broad technical collaboration. Things soon turned even more surreal. There was Ballmer, the personification of the Establishment, pledging to build a bridge between the open-source and proprietary software worlds.

Between the open-source and proprietary worlds? Who woulda thunk it? Remember that mere mention of Linux once was enough to make senior Microsoft managers break out in boils.

But that was then, and this is now. When I spoke with Ballmer later in the day, he cautioned against reading too much into the verbal pyrotechnics that marked earlier years. "There's a difference between high rhetoric and high competition," he said, observing that Microsoft's customers aren't interested in the rhetoric anymore. What they want, he continued, is the best technology they can afford.

He's right, of course. Still, this is a big step--one that previous management teams at Microsoft and Novell may not have been brave enough to take. For all of its wealth and supposed sophistication, the computer industry is populated by quite a few immature managers. Is there another multibillion-dollar business so rife with sophomoric name-calling?

You don't find the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and Citibank publicly dissing each other every time someone shoves a microphone in their faces. In Silicon Valley, maybe there was too much money up for grabs--or too many folks in a hurry to make their pile--to expect better manners.

Whatever the root cause, the trash talk was a diversion that customers in this postbubble, post-Sarbanes-Oxley economy could easily have done without. What they wanted was improved interoperability and help navigating through an increasingly complex regulatory maze. The last thing they needed was exposure to lawsuits over arcane intellectual-property disputes. What they got instead was a cold war between the open-source and proprietary-source worlds that elevated the nature of the competition to holy-war status.

All that goes by the wayside with the Microsoft-Novell pact. It boils down to this: The two companies will try to help the Linux and Windows worlds better interoperate, they will remove the potential legal liability that's been hanging over the heads of noncommercial open-source developers like a cybersword of Damocles.

It's a concession to reality and a reflection of maturing attitudes. Ballmer understands that many of his biggest customers operate in so-called mixed-computing environments with Linux and Windows applications. The days when a company like Microsoft could count on customer loyalty, as its lieutenants dismissed open source, are long gone.

Would Microsoft have done the deal if Bill Gates were still running the show? Would Novell have agreed, had Noorda still been around? Maybe not, but different CEOs are calling the shots these days, and they're making some smart decisions.