/var/opinion - Dealing with the Devil

Who sings the praises of those who got rich taking bribes from Al Capone?

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Novell has failed to learn from history, and is doomed to repeat it after having made a deal with Microsoft.

Before I continue, consider that I am one of the most pragmatic and therefore least religious among Linux advocates. I see nothing wrong with good proprietary commercial software from reliable sources. I think the DCMA, not TiVo, is the problem when it comes to TiVoization. Let me add that when IBM behaved as a controlling monopolist that did not work in the best interests of its customers, I repeatedly blew the whistle on IBM's monopolistic business practices. (Obviously, I've been writing for a long time.) Now I am a fan of IBM. As with IBM, my criticism of Microsoft is not personal. If Microsoft ever changes its ways of doing business, as IBM did, I will gladly support the company. But Microsoft has shown no signs that it has abandoned its Machiavellian tactics.

My point is that the following is not the rantings of a free software or Linux zealot, nor is the following the rantings of a mindless Microsoft basher. It is simply the truth, as best as I can see it.

Microsoft is an enemy of Linux, if not the enemy. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to read Steve Ballmer's statement that everyone who runs Linux owes money to Microsoft. But it's worse than that. Microsoft is a company run by megalomaniacs bent on control and domination of every market the company enters. Therefore, every time Microsoft makes a deal, it makes it with the ultimate goal of marginalizing the competition—not destroying all competition, lest it risk another bout with DOJ, but marginalizing it enough to prevent it from posing a threat to its dominance and market leverage. For every deal Microsoft makes that seems beneficial to anyone but Microsoft, you will find an ulterior motive in line with the aforementioned goal. For example, when you peel back the layers of Microsoft's philanthropic deals for Windows, you'll find the internal memo that instructs sales to offer such gestures only where Linux is a threat.

History is littered with the battered bodies left from such deals. I find it somewhat poetic that I first heard the term “coopetition” at a Novell press event, long ago. Novell announced that it made a deal with Microsoft, and then subjected editors to such an overdose of the words “coopetition” and “partnering”, it is still painful to write these words today. I don't recall the date of the event, but it was roughly 1–3 years before Windows NT essentially buried NetWare. Granted, Microsoft probably offered as an alternative the refusal to make IPX work properly with Windows 95. But Novell was gutless, all the same, and paid for its mistake.

There isn't enough room to document all the deals Microsoft made that marginalized its competition, so I'll leave it to students of history to recount them. Put simply, nobody has ever walked away from a deal with Microsoft as a winner, at least not in the sense of a true winner or long-term winner.

I've drawn a comparison between Microsoft and Al Capone before. The last time I did so, I quoted from the movie The Untouchables as to how to deal with Microsoft. Malone (Sean Connery) says to Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), “Here's how you get Capone: he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now, do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?”

The last time I quoted that passage in a column, Marc Andreesen wrote to tell me he taped that column to his bathroom mirror to remind him daily how to “negotiate” with Microsoft. I don't know if it did any good, but I hope it helped give Netscape the courage to go to the DOJ.

Some people are content with the Microsoft/Novell deal because Microsoft is going to promote SUSE, and Novell stands to make money from it, at least in the short term. But when it comes to the story of Al Capone, whose praise do we sing? Do we honor as heroes the men who got rich taking bribes from Capone? Or do we honor as heroes the Untouchables, those who were not willing to profit from a deal with the devil?

To those who think the Microsoft/Novell deal is good for Novell and for Linux, I say let's revisit this issue in five years when the current deal expires. I suspect the ulterior motives will surface before then, but if not, I predict those who praise Novell and/or Microsoft will be in for a rude awakening five years from now. I hope I'm wrong, but if I'm right, I pray someone at Novell with some guts will post this column on his or her bathroom mirror before it is too late.

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.



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Enemy mine

goblin's picture


What you fear is that Microsoft will somehow pollute Linux through Novell, but you never mention the possible effect, that some of the Linux way of thinking will blend back into Microsoft.

Projects like the Open Source ODF add-in for MS Word, and Port25, will of course have an effect on the inner culture of Microsoft.

No matter how evil you think the people at MS are, you will have to admit that if the Linux way is as great as we all tell each other it is, people at MS will notice it. And it will color their way of thinking.

Do we mind that?

If MS forms a symbiosis with Linux, will MS have the ability to pull Linux more towards MS, than Linux will pull MS the other way?

Think about it! You say that your crusade against MS isn't personal, that you leave the door open for MS to improve their way. What if Linux itself is that open door?

Enemy Mine - Can we sit idle in the face of this threat

DonaldRitchey's picture

Most of us in the Linux environment fear that Microsoft will leverage this "deal" to begin the process of extorting money from Linux users (in particular the business users) in the guise of "indemnifying" those users from putative Microsoft "intellecual property" claims. Steve Balmer has already made the claim that Linux users are stealing MS's IP and there are rumors of under the table payoffs from businesses intimidated into paying Microsoft protection money (See: Microsoft Getting Paid for Patents in Linux).

The longer that this state of affairs continues, the worse things become for the state of Linux and the larger universe of Free Software. If Microsoft can institutionalize the concept of a "Microsoft Tax" on Linux and other Free Software, then we are all threatened. If we don't destroy this sprig of Microsoft kudzu now, in five years our world will be enveloped in Microsoft Blue.

Which threat?

goblin's picture

I don't argue that everybody should accept paying a Microsoft tax.

Novell has the right to do busines with MS, and if Novell finds that an MS tax is a great thing for Novell to pay, let them.

This is about symbiosis. If MS forms a symbiosis with Linux through a Linux-based income, then MS has started stepping down the path that we have yelled at them to take for the last 10-15 years: The path of Open Source and free software.

MS looks at Linux from a business perspective. Don't mind if they do, they are a business.

We might know better, we might be aware that there is no basis for MS to collect taxes from Linux users. But MS looks at the world through profits, turnover and sales.

And just like a baby tries to understand new things by putting them into its mouth, even though it might be non-food, MS is trying to understand Linux in a very non-Linux way, but in a way that MS is used to understand things.

Somewhere down the stream, people are paying money to Novell that eventually becomes MS profits. Novell thus has a cost that no other Linux vendor has. And thus Novells customers have a cost that other Linux vendors' customers haven't got. Bottom line, businesses and people who buy Linus solutions from Novell are less cost-effective than customers of other Linux vendors.

Let's use the fact that Novell Linux customers are less cost effective than others, to make MS understand better ways of making money with Linux, instead of just yelling at them for making money on silly partnership deals.

If there is no value added for Novells Linux customers in paying the MS tax, these customers will notice and complain, and by that time, MS will be used to a Linux based income, and they will therefore try harder to make money on Linux the Linux-way.