TomTom caves, will pay Microsoft license fees; may force more open source patents

GPS navigation device vendor TomTom has agreed to settle its lawsuit with Microsoft by paying Microsoft license fees. Although TomTom filed a countersuit, Microsoft will not be paying license fees to TomTom in return. Specific financial terms were not disclosed but we don't need to know the financial terms to understand how important this case was. The patents at the center of Microsoft's infringement claims involved technologies found in a version of the Linux OS that TomTom's portable devices run on. The Linux community remains angry over Microsoft's bold assertion that Linux violates more than 235 of its patents and saw this case as Microsoft making good on its threats -- despite increased overtures of friendliness to the OS community.

But it should be noted that insiders say that TomTom and Microsoft had actually been in negotiation for years -- and at one point, the rumor was that Microsoft was contemplating buying TomTom, sources say. While this case is likely to have broad ramifications for Microsoft's relationship with the open source community, the underpinning of it may have a lot less to do with Linux than it appears, as Microsoft insists. Instead, the case, and its settlement, may be nothing more than a partnership/acquisition discussion gone bad. According to a story from IDG News Service:

"Microsoft has maintained the suit has nothing to do with Linux but is a disagreement between the two companies over specific technologies. While some open-source proponents tried to keep an open mind, there was worry in the community that the suit seemed a reversal of a friendlier attitude toward open source that Microsoft has tried to cultivate in the last year and a half with donations to open-source projects and the formation of its Platform Strategy Group, which acts as a liaison to the community."

The ultimate irony is that some of the dispute stemmed from two file-management system patents -- and TomTom has reportedly agreed to terms that will remove that functionality from its products with two years. This is ironic because Microsoft's file system management is an aging beast that Microsoft had earlier in the decade promised to revamp in Windows 2008 and Vista (remember the hubbub over WinFS way back in 2003?). But the big plans for WinFS got shelved -- and Microsoft officials are sometimes touchy when asked about it, now claiming that NTFS is still, and for the foreseeable future will be, their baby.

TomTom may have been financially wise to settle with Microsoft rather than taking the deep-pocketed software giant to court. But the case will likely cause the open source community to rethink its position on patents. In general, the idea of open source software and the idea of patents are at odds with each other. But because the patent system has created hundreds of thousands of poorly written software patents, open source ISVs may be forced to play the expensive, litigious patent game. And enterprise users will likely be asked to foot the bill.

Also see: Mitchell Ashley: Will Tom-Tom Lawsuit Further Distance Microsoft From Linux Crowd?

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