Should open source developers feel uneasy about the recent deal struck by Microsoft and Novell to make their operating systems work with each other?
At the beginning of November, Microsoft and Novell signed a groundbreaking agreement to work together to make their respective operating systems and products more compatible with each other.
The long-term deal also brings the open source and proprietary software communities together in what has proved to be an explosive union, with free and open source software developers criticising Novell for getting into Microsoft's proprietary bed.
Bill Hilf, Microsoft general manager of platform strategy and head of the firm's Linux labs, and Roger Levy, Novell's vice-president for open platform solutions, spoke to Computer Weekly about how the alliance will benefit users.
Microsoft's learning process
Hilf joined Microsoft three years ago with the aim of giving the company a mature and strong voice in the open source community and to define where it would compete and where it could collaborate.
The culmination of his work has been deals with Novell, the PHP community, Zend, Xen Source, JBoss and Open Source Labs. Hilf admitted that some open source concepts had been difficult to digest.
"The free software open source philosophers have been the most difficult, mainly because of the personalities, but that is a decreasing audience. I have seen in more than 13 years of working in open source that the free software audience is becoming smaller," he said.
"We frequently have an economic conversation. Microsoft is a commercial business, and we have found commercial opportunities."
A year ago Hilf opened Microsoft's open source lab - a couple of hundred servers plus a range of PCs, collectively running more than 40 different Linux distributions and many different versions of Unix.
According to Hilf, the lab is now one of the most mixed environments around, with hundreds of desktops and servers, kiosks and handhelds.
Hilf has attracted high-profile open source experts to his team, with key Unix, Linux and Java developers working together.
Agreements like the one with Novell made it all worthwhile, said Hilf. "Fundamentally, it has been a long process and it is a rather complex deal," he said, but the resulting collaboration, particularly over intellectual property, will protect users from being sued by Microsoft or Novell for patent violations.
But it is the intellectual property issue that has the open source community up in arms. Opponents of the deal accuse Novell of betraying the free and open source model by scurrying under the Microsoft intellectual property umbrella.
And, they say, by helping Microsoft to make Windows work better with SuSE Linux, Novell could open the door to Microsoft one day selling its own Linux compatibility software - something that Hilf refused to rule out.
As for contributing open source code to the community, Hilf was quick to point out that Microsoft had given away the entire Windows CE 6 kernel as open source.
But he added that the General Public Licence favoured by many open source organisations, including Novell, was "the most restrictive licence for a developer and not something we are interested in".
"What we want is BSD-style licensing, which gives developers choice and allows their code to develop and not have to be the same for eternity."
Hilf said working with open source developers was a "two-way learning process" for Microsoft. "There is a feeling in the press that Microsoft needs to learn about community, but the open source people also need to learn from Microsoft. As we build these bridges, and have them work with us, that is a very healthy thing. There has to be two-way feedback."
Novell stays open source
Like Hilf, Novell's Levy believes there are many benefits for users in interoperable Microsoft and Novell products. But he was keen to stress that Novell had not cut its ties with the open source community.
"The technology industry has a long history of companies competing in one sphere and co-operating in another," Levy said. "There is no question that we will continue to compete with Microsoft in areas such as servers, desktops, systems management and identity management. We certainly believe - and will tell our customers - that Linux is better than Windows for most of their workloads. But the bottom line is that customers will have both.
"We cannot control how people will react to this agreement. We have been clear on what our motivations have been: improving interoperability, improving the management of heterogeneous and virtualised environments, promoting document compatibility. "
Levy said Novell's long-term strategy was to make Linux and open source dominant in the industry. "The impact of this agreement will be more significant for Windows users, who will now find it much easier to deploy Linux in their environments. But it also opens up new options for Novell customers who have SuSE Linux Enterprise. It will promote the use of Linux."
Levy said Novell users would run Linux both on the edge for web servers, and in their datacentres to support core business applications. "Linux is better suited for datacentre deployments than Windows due to its scalability, security, reliability and other characteristics."
He stressed Novell's commitment to open source. "This agreement does not change the way we develop software, either for our proprietary products or our open source products. We have rigorous processes in place to ensure the intellectual property in our products is treated properly. That will not change. There is absolutely nothing in this agreement that will push us toward incorporating patented Microsoft technology into SuSE Linux Enterprise.
"Keep in mind that we did not sign any cross-licensing deal with Microsoft. We simply provided mutual covenants not to use our patents against each other's customers.
"Microsoft cannot innovate as fast as the open source community. Open source is the new innovation paradigm. We do not fear being out-innovated by Microsoft."
Asked whether he thought Microsoft would one day build its own Linux compatibility software with superior Windows interoperability, Levy said, "The basic answer is, sure. They have said, 'OK, Linux is here and we admit it, so we will work with a Linux supplier to make virtualisation of Linux on Windows and Window on Linux easier.'
"Microsoft hopes to drive all those customers to virtualise Linux on Windows. We will work to encourage users to use Linux as their foundation. Neither company is being altruistic here - it is fierce competition. But the customer will not be made to suffer for it."
This was first published in December 2006