Feature: Microsoft & Novell pact

Proprietary Vs Open Source..is an interesting debate for any tech journo, so when Microsoft closed a pact with Novell last year, how could I resist penning my thoughts on this contentious issue….The story was published in the Dataquest Magazine & on CIOL.com and got quite many comments from people from all over the world….That’s best compliment for any journalist….(http://www.ciol.com/content/search/showarticle1.asp?artid=91191)


Divide to rule?

The Microsoft-Novell pact has really jolted the IT Industry across the globe. What are the reasons? What could be the implications? There are no real answers; only a few guesses and dollops of hope.
Raymond Noorda must certainly be turning in his grave. It has been barely a month since he left for the pearly abode and already his legacy has been undone. For over a decade, Noorda fought a relentless battle against the company at Redmond. Noorda was a former CEO of Novell and to him, William Henry Gates III was an unscrupulous usurper who needed to be stopped at all costs. Novell and Microsoft were bitter enemies, nothing less and could be more.
Thus, Microsoft came out with LAN-Man to beat Novell’s Netware and Novell went on a buying spree, for instance WordPerfect, to take on the might of Microsoft on the desktop space. Sadly, Novell wasn’t David and burnt itself hollow in its battle with the Goliath. In 1993, Noorda parted ways with Novell to establish the Canopy Group that invested in a whole lot of companies working in the open source space. Novell dragged on.
A decade or so later, Novell did a course correction and in 2003, jumped on the open source bandwagon with the acquisition of SUSE (a few months before acquiring SUSE, Novell had acquired an open source application developer company, Ximian). Despite the shift, Novell could never regain its past glory. It was a distant second to another open source major, Red Hat. That was the state a few days back till Novell decided to sellout.

Embrace, Extend, Exterminate
Since, the eighties, Microsoft has been at loggerheads with some or the all the IT companies. It is renowned for the subversive tactics that it employs to nullify opposition. “Embrace, Extend, Exterminate” is supposedly the corporate philosophy that it lives by. In its three decade of existence, innumerable companies have either been gobbled up or simply run out of existence. Gates (and now Steve Ballmer, the CEO) do not look kindly at competition.

Sun, Oracle, Apple, IBM, you name it, all have been detractors of Microsoft. Google was one of the few companies that was able to steal a march over Microsoft and establish itself as a leader in the online space. Yet, one of Microsoft’s favorite bugbears has been a product company with a cute penguin as its trademark, Linux. The open source movement is an anathema to Microsoft. The company propagates proprietary systems and is loathe to giving anything away for free or even opening itself.
‘Halloween documents’ is the name given to internal Microsoft memos that were leaked to the open source community in 1998. It is a revealing commentary on how Microsoft perceives competition, mainly Linux kernel-based operating systems. The memos dub open source software as ‘a growing long-term threat to Microsoft’s dominance of the software industry.’
The documents supposedly go on to acknowledge that certain parts of Linux are superior to the versions of Windows available at the time, and outlined a strategy of “de-commoditize[ing] protocols & applications”; or basing networks and documents around proprietary standards, thus they can only interoperate with machines that work on Microsoft OS. That was at the turn of the millennium.
From competition to coopetition
Noorda in his heydays had popularized the term coopetition, i.e., cooperative competition. This philosophy is the supposed basis on which the Microsoft-Novell pact is based upon. The pact has been touted as a symbiotic breakthrough. Yet, on closer analysis, there seems to be fairly little that Microsoft seems to be getting out of the deal. But then, remember what your kindergarten teacher repeatedly asked you to rote, ‘appearances can be deceptive.’

Novell is in a rag-tag shape; SUSE-Linux was certainly not a match-winner. The deal with Microsoft seems to be god-sent for Novell. First is the cash inflow, Microsoft would be paying Novell a sum total of $380 million, that includes payment for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server subscription certificates, as money for patent cooperation. Microsoft has also dangled the olive branch, it will not sue Novell’s customers for patent infringement. It will also market Novell’s Linux version to its existing customers.

The new friends would also collaborate in the development of modern technologies in the space of virtualization, management and document format compatibility (remember the Halloween documents). So now, Linux, importantly SUSE-Linux and Windows will be interoperable. A great victory of sorts for the open source movement, or is it?

Devil is in details
How does Microsoft gain from the whole deal? Is a question that is rankling many minds. Going by Microsoft’s track record, it should not be too hard to extrapolate. The open source movement was turning out to be quite a formidable challenge for Microsoft (the likes of Google, Amazon and other Wall Street firms were using open source systems), there was still some spadework to be done.

As of now, there are two main players servicing the open source market, namely Red Hat and SUSE-Linux (Novell). While Red Hat has close to 80 per cent share of the market, Novell makes up for the rest. There are a few other smaller distributors like Ubuntu, Xandros, Linspire and others.

Strangely, just a few days before the Microsoft-Novell announcement, Oracle had decided to market its own version of open source system, quite similar to Red Hat’s. Thus, Red Hat could give Microsoft a formidable challenge in the days to come. Now in one stroke, the open source market is divided in two camps: one blessed by Microsoft and on the other end are the baiters. While it is quite fashionable for open source developers to chant ‘Win-Down’ slogan, corporates and organizations would rather prefer a more peaceful and cooperative model. The preference for interoperable systems could boost Novell’s sagging fortune and eat into Red Hat’s share (embrace and extend).

“Once the details of the agreement are clear, I anticipate Red Hat will react in some way or the other. There could be more surprises in store, in the days to come,” Bhavish Sood, principal analyst at Gartner tells CyberMedia News. He also adds that there is not much clearance on the technology roadmap. “The goals are all good. What we await is a clear cut strategy roadmap, of how Microsoft and Novell will go about achieving it.”

The irony was not lost when Ballmer made a statement at the press conference, “we’re here to announce a set of agreements that will really help bridge the divide between Linux and Windows.” Did Linux really need a bridge that was built in Redmond? Meanwhile, Ron Hovsepian, CEO, Novell, talked about how he initiated the talks with Microsoft and how in the end, “this announcement gives our customers interoperability and peace of mind all in one.”
Indian speaking
According to analysts and market sources, Indian players are quite excited at the prospects of the future. There is significant support for open source systems in India and now companies could go in for heterogeneous systems, combining both Windows and Linux. “A majority of servers in India are already on the Windows platform, this would give certain users the liberty to go in for multiple environments, using SUSE-Linux,” says Doug Hauger, chief operating officer, Microsoft (India).

Hauger also pooh-poohs the ‘embrace, extend, exterminate’ talk. “All this talk does not really make logical sense. No one owns or controls GPL (General Public License), so where is the talk of exterminating it? It all seems quite humorous,” says Hauger.

He agrees that Microsoft could look at a broader initiative in the future, involving more players like Red Hat. “This pact has really broken new ground. What I find most exciting is that how mindsets will change in the days to come. The religious fervor sort of days (oh, I do not like Microsoft!) are over and been replaced with technical and technological talk. This is the evolution towards a mature marketplace, a place where, technology will take precedence over everything else,” he adds. Meanwhile, the Novell India team seems to be in a celebratory mood already. According to sources, the top management is currently in Paris for ‘official work’.
Sleeping with the enemy
The late Noorda had supposedly thwarted two acquisition attempts by Microsoft, after a failed merger attempt. If Gary Rivlin’s “The Plot to Get Bill Gates,” is to be believed, Noorda liked to refer to Gates as “Pearly” and Ballmer as “The Embalmer.” According to Noorda, Pearly promised the heavens, meanwhile Emballmer dug your grave.

Hopefully it is a different Microsoft and a different strategy. Probably, history would not really repeat itself. Just one final piece of advice for Hovsepian, when you dine with the devil, make sure you do not end up on the menu. May Noorda’s soul rest in peace. Amen!

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