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.
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.”