Category Archives: Linux

Microsoft’s Change of Heart on Software Patents

I just read an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times written by Timothy B. Lee about the evolution of Microsoft’s view on software patents:

WHAT a difference 16 years makes. Last month, the technology world was abuzz over an interview in Fortune magazine in which Bradford Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, accused users and developers of various free software products of patent infringement and demanded royalties. Indeed, in recent years, Mr. Smith has argued that patents are essential to technological breakthroughs in software.

Microsoft sang a very different tune in 1991. In a memo to his senior executives, Bill Gates wrote, “If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today.” Mr. Gates worried that “some large company will patent some obvious thing” and use the patent to “take as much of our profits as they want.” (Quote from Timothy B. Lee in the NYT)

Interesting, but not entirely unexpected, change of heart.

I also read the rest of the Bill Gates’ memo in addition to what was quoted by Lee. Here’s the entire patent section of the memo:

PATENTS: If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today. I feel certain that some large company will patent some obvious thing related to interface, object orientation, algorithm, application extension or other crucial technique. If we assume this company has no need of any of our patents then the have a 17-year right to take as much of our profits as they want. The solution to this is patent exchanges with large companies and patenting as much as we can. Amazingly we havn’t done any patent exchanges tha I am aware of. Amazingly we havn’t found a way to use our licensing position to avoid having our own customers cause patent problems for us. I know these aren’t simply problems but they deserve more effort by both Legal and other groups. For example we need to do a patent exchange with HP as part of our new relationship. In many application categories straighforward thinking ahead allows you to come up with patentable ideas. A recent paper from the League for Programming Freedom (available from the Legal department) explains some problems with the way patents are applied to software. (Quote from a Bill Gates Memo)

Microsoft is saying that there are “problems with the way patents are applied to software”, but the “solution to this is patent exchanges with large companies and patenting as much as we can.” In other words, Microsoft planned to patent as much as they could to avoid having other companies take advantage of them. It is interesting to see their current behavior toward the Linux and open source community in light of these 1991 views.

Our current patent system stifles innovation from smaller companies and organizations without large patent portfolios at their disposal (like many Linux and open source projects). The patent process is also expensive, thus rewarding large companies who can afford to have a staff of patent lawyers. I have not entirely decided whether software patents are a really bad idea in general (I suspect that they are). I do think that we need significant patent reform and better reviews of existing and proposed patents by industry experts who have the knowledge to determine whether or not a patent is obvious.

Linux Suffers Crushing Defeat Due to Driver Errors

Today Linux suffered a crushing defeat as the Linux car crashed and placed last in the Indy 500.

The concept was very cool.  I love these community efforts where geeks pull together to do something fun outside of writing code.  In this case, the Tux 500 campaign raised just over $18,000 from people in the Linux community to sponsor a car and get Linux with the Tux logo placed on an Indy Car.

Props to commenters on the Engadget post for the driver error comment.

Using Microsoft Windows May be Linked to Kidney Stones

One of the most interesting press releases I have ever read.  One month after April Fools Day … coincidence?

 A key creator of open source software products that turn Mac OS X and Linux into Windows-compatible operating systems is issuing a medical warning to the open source community: trying to rid the world of its dependency on the Windows operating system may be linked to kidney stones in men in their 40s, it was reported today. (Quote from CodeWeavers Press Release)

Definitely worth a read!  (Thanks to Raven for the Twitter about the release.)

Dell to Sell PCs with Ubuntu

Dell made a great choice when selecting Ubuntu as the operating system for their Linux PCs. Offering Linux on PCs has always been a bit tricky since there are so many vendors. Other companies, like Red Hat or Novell might be good choices for the server, but Ubuntu seems to have a better solution for the consumer desktop. Custmers will even be able to get support from Mark Shuttleworth’s Canonical.

With so many people disillusioned with Vista, the time might be right for a bigger push toward desktop Linux:

Dell, suffering market share losses to top PC seller Hewlett-Packard, is trying reinvigorate its direct ties with customers, an approach that long has been the company’s hallmark. Linux-based PCs was an “overwhelming” request from the IdeaStorm site, Cook said.

“We heard loud and clear from customers that they wanted this,” Cook said. And of those who wanted Linux, “80 percent came back and said Ubuntu,” Cook said.

Dell began selling Linux PCs in 1999 and added laptops in 2000. But in 2001, Dell reversed course, canceling the Linux PCs because of insufficient demand. Today, Dell certifies Red Hat or Suse Linux for use on some business-oriented PCs, but except when larger customers place custom orders, customers must install the operating system themselves.

This time, things are different, Cook said.

“We think great strides have been made since 2001,” Cook said. “Linux has evolved to a point where there is something available for consumers,” though Linux PCs will appeal mostly to a Linux enthusiast market that’s more limited than that for Windows Vista. (Quote from Stephen Shankland at CNET)

Operating System Convergence and the Palm Linux Announcement

Details are still a bit light, but Palm announced that they would be building a mobile computing platform based on Linux and open source.

The platform is described as a “new foundation for Palm.” … The Analyst presentation concluded without any technical or developer details revealed about the new Linux based platform. Many questions remain to be answered as to what the official name will be, what Linux technologies are included, how Palm OS Garnet compatibility will be handled and what the development environment will be composed of. Colligan ended the Q&A session stating that the Linux based platform will be a integral “core technology” for Palm for the foreseeable future. (Quote from Ryan Kairer on Palm Infocenter)

I suspect that this is actually part of a larger trend toward operating system convergence with Linux at the center of this trend as the primary open source operating system. Companies building set top boxes, mobile products, and other devices realize that there is not much value in maintaining an entire operating system when the value is higher up the stack. By using the Linux kernel and other Linux operating system components, companies like Palm can focus on the software above the kernel that adds real value to the product. We’ll know more when they release the details, but my guess is that they will eventually replace low level PalmOS components with the Linux kernel and other parts of the operating system while focusing more on developing the user facing software.

OSDL Shake-up: Reduces Staff by 1/3 and Stuart Cohen Leaves

The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) in Beaverton, OR has just eliminated 9 technical and administrative positions at the labs. A staff of 19 people remain at OSDL including Tom Hanrahan in engineering, Diane Peters for legal work, Linus Torvalds, and Andrew Morton.

ZDnet writes that “CEO Stuart Cohen resigned to pursue opportunities with higher-level open-source software,” and that “Cohen’s resignation as CEO was coincidental and independent of the other changes at OSDL”. According to ComputerWorld, Cohen will be working with Portland and Seattle based venture capital firm OVP Venture Partners. Mike Temple will be moving the COO position into the CEO role.

The now smaller OSDL will focus on the following:

“The lab’s board concluded that a modified mission was appropriate because Linux is now mainstream, and companies have become adept on their own at some of the collaborative work OSDL was founded to oversee, Temple said Monday. The group is funded by IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Novell, Intel and several other computing companies.

OSDL’s middleman role–connecting customer requirements, computing-company resources and developers–remains unchanged, Temple said. “We will be a catalyst among those three, to bring them together, solve problems and create the code,” Temple said.

Funding freed up through the layoffs is set to go toward legal work, which the group’s members have found valuable, Temple added. The group either will contract with legal professionals or hire a staff attorney, he said.

In technical matters, the organization will stop focusing on projects defining broad categories of Linux–earlier examples including efforts for high-end servers, telecommunications gear, mobile phones and desktop computers. Instead, engineering work will emphasize narrower efforts to find areas where new software needs to be written.” (Quote from Zdnet)

“The OSDL is shifting its resources to focus on four key areas: continuing to provide a safe haven for key developers, sponsoring the work of Torvalds and others; providing increased legal support for Linux and open source to account for licensing and patent issues that are increasing in complexity (this expansion will complement current OSDL initiatives such as the Patent Commons, and the Linux Legal Defense Fund); supporting ongoing regional activities such as the Japanese Linux Symposium; and fostering closer collaboration among community developers, OSDL members and users to produce more code to advance open-source projects, OSDL officials said in a statement.” (Quote from eWeek)

Here is my take on the situation. I do not buy the “coincidence” argument. I find it very hard to believe that the CEO of any organization would just decide, completely of his own accord, to leave during a change of this magnitude. With a staff reduction of this relative size combined with a new strategic direction, Cohen’s leaving OSDL would not have been a coincidence. There are a few possibilities (caveat: this is pure speculation):

  • First, the board of directors may have “suggested” that Cohen leave due to any number of potential issues: dissatisfaction with his performance, lack of confidence in his ability to lead the organization under the new mission, …

  • Second, Cohen may not have wanted to stay under the new mission for any number of reasons: lack of agreement with the strategic change and new mission, expecting the job to be less exciting under the new mission and wanting to find greener pastures, …

Despite my skepticism about Cohen’s “coincidental” leaving, I do think that the new mission will be good for OSDL and for Linux. When OSDL was first formed, Linux as an open source project was less mature, and fewer contributors to the Linux kernel were sponsored by large companies who paid their salaries. As a result, the contributions tended to be made in areas of personal interest, which may or may not have been the areas needed to make Linux successful in large deployments of mission critical systems. OSDL helped to coordinate efforts and provide testing labs where Linux could be tested on large clustered systems not generally available to most people. Now, with companies like IBM and Intel doing more work toward sponsoring developers and helping with testing, OSDL’s original mission has become less important.

The focus on legal matters makes sense. With the proliferation of lawsuits, concerns over software patents, licensing concerns and other legal matters becoming top of mind, having an organization to focus on open source legal issues could be a great benefit. 2007 could be an interesting year for open source legal matters: the GPL is undergoing a revision, and the Microsoft / Novell agreements related to patents could be clarified. Many open source projects are run by small groups of individuals or small companies, and it would be great to have OSDL as a legal resource.

Mark Shuttleworth Invites OpenSUSE Developers to Join Ubuntu

The recent agreement between Microsoft and Novell has drawn quite a bit of criticism from the open source community especially with respect to the patent portions of the agreement. Mark Shuttleworth uses this as an opportunity to invite OpenSUSE developers into the Ubuntu community:

“Novell’s decision to go to great lengths to circumvent the patent framework clearly articulated in the GPL has sent shockwaves through the community. If you are an OpenSUSE developer who is concerned about the long term consequences of this pact, you may be interested in some of the events happening next week as part of the Ubuntu Open Week:

We are hosting a series of introductory sessions for people who want to join the Ubuntu community – in any capacity, including developers and package maintainers. If you want to find out how Ubuntu works, how to contribute or participate, or how to get specific items addressed, there will be something for you.

If you have an interest in being part of a vibrant community that cares about keeping free software widely available and protecting the rights of people to get it free of charge, free to modify, free of murky encumbrances and “undisclosed balance sheet liabilities”, then please do join us.” (Mark Shuttleworth, here be dragons)

Mark’s pragmatic response is certainly a more productive reaction to the issue than what I have seen elsewhere. I also suspect that Mark is on to something: Novell will probably lose quite a few good community members as a result of this action.

Will Oracle Create a Linux Distribution?

Jeff Nolan is speculating that Oracle will announce the creation of an Oracle Linux distribution based on Red Hat today. He goes on to suggest that Oracle may eventually want to acquire Red Hat:

It’s a rumor, and in all fairness my track record on the last couple has not been good, but according to a number of open source industry insiders, Oracle is going to announce at LinuxWorld tomorrow their own branded version of Linux based on the Red Hat distro. Previous speculation had them announcing something at their analyst meeting in October, but with the penguin festival this week in SF it makes perfect sense.

This is a smart move on their part for a couple of reason. First and foremost, by forking off Red Hat they compete with Red Hat without having to deal with product issues. It’s all about support and the ability to offer a top-to-bottom stack. I think it also sets up the eventuality that Oracle could acquire Red Hat and realize the all important consolidation objective. Either way, this is a problem for Novell.

It’s a problem for SAP as well, although not as severe as Oracle would like to believe. We’re finally turning the corner on open source at a couple of levels, even though we haven’t been publicly talking about much there is in fact a lot going on. (Venture Chronicles)

My take? I think that an Oracle Linux distribution and/or possible acquisition of a Linux distributor are reasonably likely scenarios over the next year (maybe two); however, I doubt that this will happen today.