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July 27th, 2011

SUSE & Patent FUD: Who Do We Boycott Now?

Now that Microsoft and SUSE have announced they plan to continue sleeping together, I wonder if the folks at Techrights are rethinking their plans to pull the plug on Boycott Novell?

In case you don’t know, Boycott Novell is a project started by Techrights in response to Microsoft’s and Novell’s announcement, in 2006, that they would be collaborating on Windows and Linux interoperability and support. The deal had Redmond shoveling money to Novell’s Linux distro SUSE in $100 million increments, and included an agreement that Novell’s customers wouldn’t be sued by Microsoft for patent infringements.

As originally worded, this patent deal was in complete violation of the GPL and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the real purpose here was to sow FUD, pure and simple. Soon afterward, if memory serves, Techrights began the Boycott Novel project to research and document the shenanigans between Microsoft and Novell. They found, of course, plenty of evidence that Novel was not the good open source player they wanted everyone to think they were, even if they did redeem themselves somewhat by their actions in the SCO case.

At the time Novell struck the deal with Microsoft, they were a relatively new player in the open source world. Three years earlier, in 2003, they separately acquired SUSE and Ximian in moves that seemed to be entirely opportunistic, meant to add sparkle to a once dominant but now aging proprietary software stack by piggybacking it atop popular and trusted Linux.

Ironically, up until that time, Novell and Microsoft had been archenemies, and much of Novell’s market share loses had been due to Redmond’s aggressive marketing. At the time of the SUSE purchase, many in the FOSS community had high hopes that Novell would become an open source asset, even though they had shown a proclivity in the past for snatching defeat out of the arms of victory. All hopes were dashed, however, when they embraced their old enemy with a deal they had to know wouldn’t set well in the FOSS world.

When Novell was acquired by Attachmate earlier this year, that era seemed to have come to an end. SUSE was split-off to become a separate company and Techrights pondered ending Boycott Novell:

“There is not much left to say about Novell. The company more or less vanished, so for Boycott Novell to be an active project would be hard. Novell did not reform itself (it got worse over time), but the alternative goal was achieved. We hoped to make Novell change its ways, ideally, and withdraw from the Microsoft deal due to public pressure, otherwise to just fail and give way to ethical companies.

“After spending hours researching for this post, we are left wondering if this is good use of time. Even Microsoft is an issue we mostly neglected with the exception of patent stories because a patent parasite is all we expect Microsoft to be within a few years.

“Based on what we found about Novell, not much of its core is even passed to Attachmate”

Indeed, it did seem that Boycott Novell had outlived it’s usefulness, until Monday’s announcement that Microsoft had renewed their deal with SUSE and would be putting $100 million into the Linux distro’s coffers. Although the announcement on the SUSE web site made no mention of patents, tech news sites like InformationWeek have indicated that it’ll be business as usual, with MS’s patent FUD being given the perception of legitimacy through SUSE:

“Microsoft on Monday said it agreed to extend by four years a controversial deal under which it resells SUSE Linux services to business customers and pledges not to sue those customers, or SUSE, for patent infringement.

‘Microsoft has long held that Linux violates its patents on parts of the Windows operating system, a claim rejected by advocates for the open source and free software communities. One such group, the Free Software Foundation, told InformationWeek that it plans to investigate whether Microsoft’s new deal with SUSE violates open source licensing terms.

“Under the renewed agreement, Microsoft is committed to purchasing $100 million worth of SUSE Linux certificates through 2015. Microsoft and SUSE also will work together to build and market software and services that combine Windows and Linux technology.”

In a blog published on Monday, The VAR Guy, as expected, saw no problem with the Microsoft/SUSE deal:

“…Admittedly, the Microsoft-SUSE relationship has triggered concerns within the open source community over the years.

“Still, The VAR Guy believes enterprise CIOs have largely applauded the Microsoft-SUSE work, since so many businesses are looking for ways to integrate Windows Server and Linux within private data centers and across public clouds.”

Unfortunately, The VAR Guy is probably correct. As long as the MS/SUSE deal doesn’t violate the terms of the GPL in a legalistic sense, I doubt many enterprise bigwigs care at all whether it violates the spirit of the license. On the contrary, the deal probably makes SUSE an attractive business choice for companies running both Linux and Windows, since they’ll be able to count on tech support from Microsoft for Windows/Linux interoperability issues which won’t be available if running another distro like Red Hat.

So where does that leave those of us who know this deal to be just plain wrong?

Techrights is probably right, even after this development. Really, nothing has changed, it’s just the same old deal extended for another four years. There may be nothing about this deal that doesn’t stink, and stink badly, but there’s nothing new here. Sadly, the Microsoft/SUSE connection would seem to have become a legacy with which we are doomed to live for as long as both companies are viable.

This is a real shame. There was a time when SUSE was considered by many to be the Rolls Royce of distros. Now it’s basically “Windows for Linux.” All they need to do now is add a “Start” button, a registry, and put it on a file system that’s prone to rapid fragmentation.

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

19 comments to SUSE & Patent FUD: Who Do We Boycott Now?

  • Liu Kang

    “Only customers that use SUSE have paid properly for intellectual property from Microsoft,” says Ballmer.

    I dont blame people who have jobs and mortgages but the non-compensated hobbyists (developers) that work on SUSE should be embarrased.

    “Novell pays us some money for the right to tell customers that anybody who uses SUSE Linux is appropriately covered,” Ballmer said. This “is important to us, because [otherwise] we believe every Linux customer basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability.”

    We dont NEED SUSE like in its heyday now so if it disappears quickly from existence it wont be quick enough.

  • Probably just a way for MS to get a foot in the door to sue other Linux distros for IP disputes! I will certainly mark SUSE off my “distors to try” list!

  • wsamples

    I currently receive posts from Foss Force through an aggregation service. I’m about to write a filter for my feed reader that will delete them before I see them. Chau pues.

  • paul

    I agree with your assessment.

    I love your closing remark.

    “All they need to do now is add a ‘Start’ button, a registry, and put it on a file system that’s prone to rapid fragmentation.”

  • Torp

    Why are people *still* talking about SuSE? I was an user until Novell bought them and the whole mono+ms patents thing started; then switched to debian->ubuntu and never looked back…

  • corneliu

    I thought the the whole Microsoft thing was over and I liked Attachmate’s decision to get rid of Mono. So I gave OpenSuse a try and I was very impressed with it. And then suddenly the extended deal with Microsoft is announced and the collaboration with Mono is getting stronger, so unfortunately I had to remove Suse from my computer. I’ll give it another try in 2015. Luckily we have plenty of distros to choose from.

  • @Liu Kang I agree. It would be horrible to be a free software person and to earn your living working for SUSE, but people do what they have to do to keep their families supported. I can’t see why anyone would volunteer to contribute to this distro, however.

  • @Bill Dwyer We think a lot alike. In an earlier draft of this article, I mentioned that SUSE would never be installed on one of my computers until (unless?) things change:-)

  • @paul Thanks Paul. And that was a fun line to write.

  • @Torp There ya go, Torp. Now that this deal’s done, I think SUSE would have to get out of the hands of Attachmate for me to give them a try now. That being said, I’m sure that SUSE couldn’t care less whether I use their product or not.

  • @corneliu Thanks for being a good FOSS citizen. IMHO, we absolutely can’t support a supposed FOSS company that violates our basic values:-)

  • Steve Stites

    “So where does that leave those of us who know this deal to be just plain wrong?”

    The deal was extended for four more years and so we should extend the boycott for four more years.

    Steve Stites

  • Andrey

    I guess the right way to do is to figure out if it is technically possible to sue me if I got a SUSE Linux from a guy who got if from another guy who got it from SUSE and eventually turned it into Arch, all that happening 50 years ago.

    I guess that is technically impossible. If so, spreading the news will provide Microsoft with 1 (one) SUSE purchase per city. At best.

  • @Steve Stites Agreed! You won’t find SUSE on any computer of mine. Nor will I do business with the “new” Novell or Attachmate. As for Microsoft…

    And it goes without saying, I’ll advise anybody against doing business with any of these:-)

  • @Andrey You raise a very interesting question. It would seem to me that if you were to create a all new distro based on SUSE you would have to be covered under the SUSE/Microsoft deal. But, I bet they’ve already thought of that and have a clause in their deal to cover it.

  • DavidEF

    @Andrey and @Christine Since they are using the terminology “SUSE Linux certificates”, I would guess they are simply using said certificates as proof of ownership, just like Microsoft’s own Certificate(s) Of Authenticity. That is the simplest way to make the burden of proof fall on the user.

  • @DavidEF Which would, itself, be a violation of the GPL, I believe.

  • […] Hall further solidifies the stance that we should keep the same attitude towards SUSE. She writes: Indeed, it did seem that Boycott […]

  • PR

    We need to support companies that are about Open Source/Free Software from the get-go.

    Ignore the Gnome/Unity clash and focus on linux. Support Canonical.

    Support Red Hat on your servers. They are, and have always been, about free software.

    While it is sad to see OpenSUSE lose supporters, some of their stances are pretty weird (Miguel, I’m looking at you).