Patents and Peace: Are the Microsoft-Linux Wars Over?

Patents and Peace: Are the Microsoft-Linux Wars Over?

Microsoft may be friendlier toward Linux and open source, but it is still competing with them.

Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) have ended their patent war to much fanfare in the tech press. And Microsoft has been collaborating with open source companies including Canonical. But does that mean the Microsoft-Linux patent wars are essentially over, too?

That's the question Roy Schestowitz, a longtime advocate of open source software, asks in a recent blog post. His answer is a resounding "no."

Despite the declaration by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella earlier this year that "Microsoft loves Linux," Schestowitz points out, the company still seems to be funding patent cases involving open source software.

To be sure, most of those cases involve third-party private companies, and the details and extent of Microsoft's role in patent-trolling against Linux are murky. In addition, most of them don't exclusively target open source developers or companies, at least not explicitly. It's not clear that the Intellectual Ventures case against USB hubs, which Schestowitz cites as the latest example of Microsoft patent-trolling because it involves devices that could be running embedded open source operating systems, is actually aimed at the open source world as much as Schestowitz believes.

Still, it's worth keeping in mind that recent moves by Microsoft that appear to herald a friendlier stance toward open source are not necessarily proof positive that the Microsoft-Linux wars of the past are now over. Yes, Microsoft has partnered with companies such as Canonical in IoT and the cloud. And it recently built a Linux-based OS for Azure, which is actually much less interesting than a lot of reports suggested.

But moves like these don't mean Microsoft truly loves Linux. Rather, they mean Microsoft likes Linux as long as Linux sticks to its traditional turf: embedded into special-purpose devices that were never good candidates for running Microsoft software, like data center switches (where the Linux-based OS for Azure will live) and IoT hardware.

This isn't to say Microsoft is deliberately trying to mislead, or waging some kind of secretive war against open source while claiming to want peace. But it is a reminder against making too much of recent moves by Microsoft in the open source space, or statements by the company's new CEO, or the company's apparent shying away from patent-trolling in the wake of the settlement with Google.

The world has come a long way since Craig Mundie's "Shared Source" speech at NYU in 2001, but the fundamentals of the game have not changed.

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