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Microsoft Tax on Linux Devices

Not long ago, penguinistas were bemoaning the fact that the purchase of a new computer almost always came with a built-in “Microsoft tax,” since all major OEMs wouldn’t sell a computer without Windows pre-installed. Now that things have changed and it’s relatively easy to purchase a new PC or laptop either with no operating system installed or already preloaded with Linux, that issue should be far behind us.

Guess again.


The desktop and laptop might be safe, for the time being, but now the evil empire has dug its talons into the mobile world. It’s becoming nigh near impossible to purchase a device running Android or Chrome OS without a hidden Microsoft tax, and the makers of smartphones and tablets probably won’t be offering devices with no operating system installed in the near future, for those of us who’d prefer to install our own OS and skip having any of our money shipped to MS.

The new Microsoft tax is in the form of patent licenses that OEMs are being blackmailed into paying by the Microsoft folks. Yep, MS is finally making good on its promises to enforce the patents it claims are being violated by Linux by going after the makers of devices running Android (and now, evidently, Chrome OS). Does Microsoft actually hold valid patents being infringed by Android? Who knows? That would be for the courts to decide and, so far, nothing’s gone to court. OEMs are just ponying up and buying MS licenses on the strength of Microsoft threats. So much so that Redmond is evidently making more money on Android than on Windows Phone 7.

Considering the fact that these patent licenses will end-up costing the OEMs tens of millions of dollars, if not more, why are they just giving-in and crying “uncle?” The other day, Timothy Lee at Forbes dug up an old article that offers a good explanation:

“In the 1980s, attorney Gary Reback was working at Sun Microsystems, then a young technology startup. A pack of IBM employees in blue suits showed up at Sun headquarters seeking royalties for 7 patents that IBM claimed Sun had infringed. The Sun employees, having examined the patents, patiently explained that six of the seven patents were likely invalid, and Sun clearly hadn’t infringed the seventh. Reback explains what happened next in this classic Forbes article:

“‘An awkward silence ensued. The blue suits did not even confer among themselves. They just sat there, stonelike. Finally, the chief suit responded. “OK,” he said, “maybe you don’t infringe these seven patents. But we have 10,000 U.S. patents. Do you really want us to go back to Armonk [IBM headquarters in New York] and find seven patents you do infringe? Or do you want to make this easy and just pay us $20 million?” After a modest bit of negotiation, Sun cut IBM a check, and the blue suits went to the next company on their hit list.’”

So far, according to Tech Drive-in, at least six companies are paying or are in negotiations with Microsoft. The list includes such well known brands as HTC and Samsung. In addition, Redmond is suing Barnes and Nobles over their Nook ebook reader which runs on Android.

Microsoft’s patent trolling against Android and Chrome OS has been getting plenty of coverage in the blogosphere recently, but there’s one aspect I haven’t seen covered. While it’s true that much of Android is licensed under the Apache Software License, the Linux kernel and other aspects are licensed under GPLv2. Because of that, it would seem to me that any patent agreements between an Android manufacturer or marketer and Microsoft are possibly not in compliance unless they cover all users of Android.

I’m not an expert on the GPL, and I’m certainly not a patent attorney, but this definitely should be investigated further. If these agreements are permissible by law, they’re still not keeping to the spirit of the GPL, meaning that Google and its Android partners should get some sort of official black mark from the FOSS community.

I have no doubts that my sentiments echo those of many FOSS supporters. I don’t want to see a cent of my money go to Ballmer & Company for any reason, and certainly not for Linux.

As the social networkers like to add, “Just saying.”

The following two tabs change content below.
Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

14 comments to Microsoft Tax on Linux Devices

  • Bill Dwyer

    Unfortunately the Sun experience is probably not unique and it was cheaper to “pay now, not later”. Who knows how many obscure items MS or some other companies hold patents on and are just waiting for the time to enforce them.

    It was said that before Polaroid ever released the first self developing camera their engineers had figured out and patented every conceivable method to self-develop film. Back in the early or mid 70s Kodak tried to market a self developing camera called “The Crank”, because you cranked the film through the developer. You guessed it, Polaroid hit them with patent infringement and won!

    I’m sure if Linux ever became a real threat to MS, they’d be after all of us users for compensation.

  • Phill Rogers

    Firstly if someone ever does stand up to Microsoft and say “prove it in court” and wins, do all of those who paid up before get their money back?

    Secondly, at up to $15 per device and billions of devices shipped per year, surely there’s a point at which it’s worth it for all the manufacturers whose products are based on Linux to team up and simply buy Microsoft. Then release the patents to OIN and let the rest of Microsoft continue on a level playing field (or even open up Windows etc.).

  • Carling

    Quote
    I’m sure if Linux ever became a real threat to MS, they’d be after all of us users for compensation
    Linux is killing MS. Linux accounts for 91.00 % of the top supercomputers. Linux is followed by Unix with 4.6%; and Windows with 1.2%.

    Look at the governments and education departments that have dumped windows since 2002, Bazillion government and education now have over a million public computers running on Linux, Russian government and education department will be all Linux by 2015. Hp the worlds largest computer manufactures are dumping windows and installing there own Linux WebOS

  • markh

    linux and patents IMHO already have passed the jury of public opinion…….even if M$ had the patents they have not built a competant prototype of a product that actually works right.

    not to mention some of the stuff they are claiming as IP should never have gotten a patent to begin with…..the thing they are doing to the nook with “the way the user interfaces to the device” crap is BS. Whats next? Ford patenting the steering wheel and suing every other car maker so that all the other brands end up with joysticks & levers?

    Linux WILL continue regardless of anything M$ does….the cat is out of the bag. Waiting 20 years to put their foot down will not fly in court or public opinion…..

  • Atarivandio

    My comments frequently spring up as articles almost within the week. Lol. I will reiterate. I’ve decided to refer to Google folks as googs in the same way that Koreans were called gooks. It’s not that I’m a racist, It’s just that there is simply no way that Microsoft can touch Google without destroying the internet and their reputation permanently or simply the reputation part. We need to summon Google yada yada us super G materia (Google) yada yada. Lords prayer. Oh Linus hollowed be thy name. Give us this day our daaily code, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in google. yada yada smite Microsoft like the Oin has done with others. yada yada. Just f@%&ing do it. I’m tired of waiting on the article writers to get this done. Every time something has been done it was due to an article stirring the controversy. Use your pull and summon Google. I can comment all day long, but I’m just one attached to the central comment. Just get off your a@@ and write one that will pi@@ people off enough to do something ya know ‘G-materig.’ Lol. Nobody ever really gets it. You know those Microsoft adds that always sell machines, and we always wonder why. Your articles could have the same power.

  • Atarivandio

    Actually one more thing. You know the whole taxation without representation thing that happened once upon a time in America. I you want to know the answer on how to fix the Microsoft tax, just read a history book. You will usually find the instructions on pages marked ‘Constitution’ and ‘Bill of Rights.’ There needs to be a consortium of reporters that haggle law makers (omg like lobbyists that perform Microsoft’s amazing witchcraft). Is that so hard. If you all published the same piece at the same time and wait like a month. I think you would be surprised at what the reaction would be. It worked 200 years ago with Ben and his crazy ideas. It worked in 1980 between Apple and Microsoft. It will work now. The only difference is that it works faster which is why Microsoft is always a step ahead. Haven’t you noticed how everyone thinks about buying windows at the same time. It’s cause every publication under their thumbs has the same kind of article praising a new version of windows for how it’s so crazy it grants wishes or something like that, and they publish them at the same time. This writer lost his credibility with me when he made it obvious he is a dip-s&*$. Sorry I forgot, unless he is not an American. That’s what it is, because if he was an American he would have had to hear this same story in History class, at least the 16 times that is required to finish High-school. I forgive you know that I realized that you are not an American. Sorry Brit or Hit or whatever.

  • Christine Hall

    @Bill Dwyer Thank you so much for sharing the Polaroid story. Indeed, the Sun story serves to illustrate what is a common business practice. I’ll be writing more on this soon.

    @Phil Rogers I like the way you think. However, I don’t think it likely that Android makers will be trying to buy M$ anytime soon. At present, Microsoft’s market valuation is $203.7 billion. However, MS has been shrinking in size for several years now and if this continues, your prediction might come true.

    @Carling You’re completely right. MS very much considers Linux to be a threat. That being said, @markh is right – public opinion is on our side and Redmond would need to attack us with due caution.

    @Atarivandio You’re wrong on at least one point. I am very much an American, born and raised in North Carolina. My family’s history in the U.S. dates back nearly as far as the Mayflower. Actually, even further than that, as a smidgen of me is Cherokee:-)

  • [...] had already signed deals like the one with Novell in order to create what Christine (of FOSS Force) calls the “Microsoft Tax on Linux Devices”. To quote: The desktop and laptop might be safe, for the time being, but now the evil empire has [...]

  • Atarivandio

    Sorry bitter before the coffee storm. I just get so frustrated with a lake of coherent structure in the community. There is a point where a open source project starts. It usually starts as a loooooooong thought over sometimes years. Then all the sudden it comes together and is one person’s work. This of course has snowballed into what it is now. I think Linus is ready to invent the ‘flash company.’ One section perfects kernels, one perfects Gui’s, and one (us) should perfect legalities. Each group of varying levels of complicity but all equally as important. Cern has already began the work on open hardware. This will lay the framework for a mega clone completely unorganized, but completely organized. No one part belongs anywhere, but all fit together. Unstoppable, by the same nature as a terrorist’s thoughts. Just an idea. I’m a pretty good futurist (successful on many topics). I’m going to guarantee bloggers right now that this is the future, and even though it will take a while, IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN. IT IS GOING TO HAPPEN IN THE NEXT TEN TO TWENTY YEARS. ALL THINGS WILL BE LAID TO REST BY CONSUMERS NOT LIVING IN FEAR. GOVERNMENTS WILL NOT FALL VICTIM TO SUBVERSION THROUGH COMPTROLLERS OF INFRASTRUCTURE. THE DEVALUATION OF TECHNOLOGY WILL LEAD TO EXPANSION INTO SPACE. THE COST OF MODERN MEDICINE WILL CRASH JUST SO THAT ALL WILL HAVE A SHOT. GENE THERAPY (THE BEAST ITSELF) WILL OCCUR AS SOCIAL SPORT. WE ARE LIVING IN THE TIME JUST SO AS THE WRIGHT BROTHERS HAVE JUST FINISHED THEIR FIRST FLIGHT. ALL THIS IS PLAY PRETEND FOR MATURE INDUSTRIES OF THE FUTURE. For me 200 or even 500 years out of the few we have left is not long to wait. I know many of these statements at face value are odd or even crazy to read, but take what little we have now and go back even eighty years and see what reaction you will get as the Gods of the future. We are still but children chasing a fantasy that is overly complicated by our lack of knowledge, which will make all well. ‘I though what I’d do is pretend to be one of those deaf mutes.’

  • [...] Read more at Foss Force Uncategorized July 13th 2011 [...]

  • I don’t understand,
    why google is mum on MS stealing money with patents, for android?
    why not google take stand and ask MS to prove infringed patents?

    or may be mobile manufacturers & google teamup to take MS to court.

  • rd

    in my country (and many in the EU) patents applicable to software are not enforceable. So, why should I be paying a fee as part of the handset price?

    This is unfortunately a problem that stems from a single country’s dis-functional patents office and legal system and is affecting the rest of the world. It’s especially galling that many of the patents are sourced from other countries but only registered in the USA (because, software patents can’t be easily registered in other countries).

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  • I can’t say that things changed much with buying a non OS machine from major OEMs (like Lenovo and etc.). This battle against MS monopoly is still on-going (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_refund ). What have changed, is probably better availability of smaller less known vendors who sell no OS / free OS machines.