Redmond vs. Red Hat: Divide and conquer

As we close out the year, it is instructive to ponder last month's pro-Linux announcement by Microsoft. It tells us a lot about how the company's thinking is evolving with respect to competition. And, more importantly, what that might mean to customers in the coming year.

You have to give Microsoft credit. With one announcement the company significantly undermined the enterprise Linux movement while superficially offering it support.

When the news hit, I was traveling in Asia - but it was significant enough to warrant a substantial story in the International Herald Tribune.

The story, "Microsoft and Novell sign cooperation pact on Linux", began by stating: "Microsoft has acknowledged the influence of ... Linux." It noted that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Microsoft has been getting "pressure" to make its operating system and Linux "operate together."

The quick read is that Microsoft caved in to customer demand. What a beautiful thing. But, as many analysts are pointing out, the decision to support Linux might do more to discourage customer migration than to encourage it. And, of course, that is just fine by Microsoft.

By backing Novell's SUSE Linux, the company executed a classic divide and conquer tactic against Red Hat. While the announcement was ostensibly about operating together, that is not really an issue as far as I can tell.

Think about it. You want to have a Windows machine and a Linux machine in the same network operate together. They communicate using standard network protocols. They already operate together and did so before the announcement. Operation is really just coexistence and that is about as complicated as you and I taking an elevator together. There is nothing special we have to do - we just coexist there until we get to our respective floors.

This is cover for the key news, which is that Microsoft and Novell have worked out agreements regarding intellectual property rights. With its magic wand, Microsoft has created a lawsuit-free version of Linux while simultaneously reminding everyone that every other version of Linux is a potential target. And the three-year exclusive deal with Novell is going to undermine the other leading players.

If you think this won't happen, it is instructive to check out Wikipedia on SCO Group's lawsuit warpath. The company is not only going after IBM and Red Hat; it has been in litigation with DaimlerChrysler for some time.

As someone who has been involved in corporate IT buying for a quarter of a century, it is ingrained in my psyche that I should look for the technology that will provide the maximum benefit to my company. That is no longer the case.

Unfortunately, buyers now must think about the fact that the solution they purchase might cause them to become a target in a lawsuit. If this causes buyers to be attracted by the solution least likely to cause harm rather than those that can do them the most good, that will be a sad day indeed.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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