novell and MS- some open questions

I wrote nearly 1500 words on Novell and MS earlier in the evening, but I think I’ll sit on most of them for now as I think them through some more. [Disclaimer: I spoke to Nat on the phone for a bit this evening, and I used to work for Novell, left on good terms, and still have lots of friends there.] Here are the open questions from the end of that post, though:

  • What will the exact terms of the patent non-assert be? (My guess: they’ll be good for individual hackers, and fixable in the future if need be- MS has nothing to fear from non-commercial hackers, and lots to gain politically by making nice with them. Whatever the terms are, it would be silly to act on them in any way until we see exactly what they are- basing action on a press release/FAQ would be insane. :)
  • How will the non-assert interact with the GPL v2, and specifically with GPL/LGPL code written by Novell? (My guess: It is hard to see how this could go well, but Novell has some very smart lawyers who I assume have been thinking about this for a long time, probably playing off the fact that this is technically a positive gift to some folks and not technically a restriction on others.)
  • Will MS extend similar agreements on fair, acceptable terms to everyone who seeks to commercialize open source? Or have they chosen to knight a single competitor in this space? (My guess: they will not make such an offer; this is a divide-and-hold-off tactic, seeking to put Novell on the same footing as Apple- present, with some market share, helping to hold off the antitrust crowd, but mainly harmless. Hard to blame Novell for taking the opportunity, though, even if it does establish precedent that they owe MS royalties on Linux.)
  • Will Novell continue to open the interoperability code they write (like the Evolution Exchange plugin)? (My guess: they’ll continue to open it, but the omnipresent threat of MS’s patents will substantially chill commercial uptake by other vendors.)
  • Does this commit MS to substantive work with ODF, or is Novell’s act of breaking ranks with Sun, IBM, etc. one-sided? (My guess: very hard to know until we see more details, but overall ODF has more to lose here- it must be seen as the choice of ‘everyone but MS’ to have a really good chance of succeeding, so this is damaging to ODF, even though it is clearly very good for Real Users.)

There is a lot to mull over here. I do think Novell’s intent here is positive, and some people are clearly overreacting. But we have to approach it with deep skepticism- any move which privileges one vendor above all others is not MS showing love for Linux, but MS showing love for a single Linux vendor, which is a very, very different thing, and we should keep that in mind. It is clearly good for Novell and MS; likely good (short term) for most users; likely ambiguously good for individual volunteer developers; very ambiguous for the free software community (if you define it to include all of our commercial partners); likely (long term) bad for users who should prefer open standards; likely ambiguously bad for Novell’s competitors. However you want to look at it, it will take a while to sort through all the ramifications, even once we have all the details that are still currently lacking.

[Later: I’ve seen a lot of responses; most of them lacking substance and perspective. Matt Asay’s response seems to be the best of the bunch so far- says sane and substantive things about the business part of it, and doesn’t go into the tricky community-impact minefield that no one is doing a good job of addressing of yet.]