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Gary Richmond [opinions]

Fork off Mr Ballmer! [microsoft] [novell] [suse]

Any serious, committed user of GNU/Linux who hasn’t heard about the Microsoft/Novell deal has either been slightly dead or at the bottom of an Albanian tin mine shaft wearing a particularly sturdy pair of ear muffs.

Seriously though, the digital wires have been humming back and forth with the original story and the chain-reaction stemming from it. Is it all a storm in a teacup, an over-action? And, does it really matter to the mere, humble end-user like me? I think that it does matter.

It matters because, if you are a typical GNU/Linux end-user like me, you may have found your way to it after enduring the progressive miseries of Windows. In my case, the culprit was the notorious Windows ME. By the time I was ready to jump the proprietary ship, the monitor was heading towards the unopened window. Once I was able to compute in pleasure, stability, ease and security, my interest turned more and more to the ethics, philosophy and politics of free software.

I came to realise that this was the guarantor of the technical aspects I took for granted but as the saying goes, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and whilst this may be a dry, tedious business it is as necessary as pension planning. Nobody likes it but come the day when they present you with the retirement clock and you are looking down the financial gun barrel...

So, who has been saying what? Nicholas Petreley, a former editor of Tux Magazine. He was near inchoate with anger and did not pull his punches. He wasn’t the only one. The Samba team also laid into Novell, as did Petreley, for putting short-term business gain before the long-term interests of the Linux community, which has given freely to Novell many of the GPLed tools we all take for granted. Meanwhile, over at the ever dependable and informative conduit at Groklaw, Novell was accused of getting cute with the GPL and Eben Moglen is reported as saying that the upcoming GPLv3 will be re-drafted to make the Microsoft/Novell deal a violation of the GPL. Bruce Perens was unequivocal in his condemnation: Novell was the new SCO.

When names of such quality and recognition are speaking out so vehemently and with much greater knowledge and experience than me, I’m inclined to sit up and take notice. You don’t need to be classed as an FSF purist or ideological bigot to see that something is happening here that concerns all GNU/Linux users which, if left unchecked, will lead to further attacks on free software.

Think I’m exaggerating? Well, if you don’t believe me just look at the reaction of a certain Mr Steve Ballmer. Barely had the ink dried on the deal, which the spin told us was to protect Novell customers from action by Microsoft for infringement of their patents, when Ballmer immediately started to crow that other Linux users could owe his company money for using its intellectual property! Excuse me while I reach for the Imodium. Here’s a little puzzle for you Steve: rearrange the following words—black, calling, pot, the and kettle. At least Novell hit back very quickly and refuted Ballmer’s interpretation. The words “constructive ambiguity” spring to mind, a term that implies the issue is being fudged.

Perhaps I am being too naive or too cynical. I’m not an IT professional or a business consultant and ill-equipped to tease out the machinations and tactics of large corporations but like most other GNU/Linux users I know that Microsoft is (in)famous for retailing an inferior product and deploying a lot of FUD in doing so. It may come as a something of a surprise therefore to discover that Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical/Ubuntu fame has been accused of spreading FUD too! He made a pitch to Novell developers to jump ship and join the Debian-based distro. I read some of the reactions. They were unanimously hostile.

Well, that was quite an interesting tour of the current furore. Doubtless the story will continue and we will all have to decide whether or not to have a SUSE uninstallfest. What did I do? Sorry, but I’m not saying lest I make a fool of myself. I’ll sit on the fence for the time being and keep a watching brief on what the experts decide to do and recommend. In the final analysis, if you have the inclination and the skills you can always fork off and develop your own distro or contribute to someone else’s efforts.

As a parting note, I will make this observation: when Warren Buffett donated his billions to Bill Gates’ charity to dispose of at his will, Gates gave Buffett his first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Perhaps someone should have underlined the following passage: “men of the same trade seldom meet together, even for the purposes of amusement, but the conversation turns into a conspiracy against the public”. Need I say more?


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