Unless Linux developers begin purposely infringing on major Microsoft patents, Redmond will not go after Linux regarding the famous 235 patents they claim the penguin already violates. They’ve waited too long; that can no longer happen. To go after Tux now would be something akin to suicide and might possibly relegate the software giant to being simply another consumer software company. Ballmer knows this; Red Hat probably knows it; the rest of us suspect it.
The reason for this centers around the enterprise. No matter how pervasive Windows may be in the consumer market, they can’t live on the money they make from supplying binary for home computers, especially given the fact that most consumers receive all their Microsoft products preinstalled when they purchase their boxes. The Microsoft tax on consumer products is hardly enough to keep the world’s largest software maker afloat, and it’s a tax they can’t raise much without creating a revolt by both consumers and OEMs that would move personal computing to Apple and Linux.
The enterprise, however, is a cash cow. Redmond has sold who knows how many enterprise server licenses, with even more seats sold for instances of Windows running on workstations and desktops. Since a license for Windows Server 2008 R2 costs at least a thousand bucks a pop, with many companies running hundreds or thousands of Windows servers, that means lots of bucks coming Redmond’s way.
The dirty little (not so) secret is that among Microsoft’s largest clients, there isn’t more than one or two (if that many) who aren’t also running Linux somewhere on the farm. Many companies, in fact, are actually running more Linux than Windows, letting Tux do the heavy lifting and leaving Wintel to keep the cubicle workers productive with Office. This means that Ballmer & Company’s largest clients are just as dependent upon Red Hat, SUSE or Ubuntu as they are on Microsoft.
However dumb Ballmer may be, he ain’t stupid. Knowing that his best customers also run Linux, he knows that if he were to try to cripple the Penguin through patent lawsuits he would quickly become the CEO of the Titanic. All he has to do is look at what happened to SCO’s Unix business after they tried to bring down Tux by threatening end users through SCOsource.
He understands that his enterprise customers wouldn’t be happy to face the huge expense of migrating from Linux to something else simply because MS wanted to do away with the competition. Migrate they would, probably to some version of Unix, and while they were migrating anyway they’d likely move their Microsoft business as well. Suddenly Office compatibility wouldn’t be that much of an issue.
This doesn’t mean that Microsoft’s not dangerous or that they’ll never use their patent portfolio against Linux. This also doesn’t mean that Linux developers can relax and not worry about infringing on Microsoft’s (or anyone else’s) patents. Certainly, one day Redmond might file a Linux related patent lawsuit, but the purpose would be to wound Linux, not to take the open source operating system out of the game. Mostly Redmond will continue being a FUD force, spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about the 235 Microsoft patents that Tux supposedly walks upon.
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. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux