Friday, November 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Peace breaks out, for good business reasons

Seattle Times staff columnist

Every now and then the tech industry comes up with something we really need. Like a little uplifting news in this season of divisive, nasty, petty politics.

That's one way to interpret the news that Microsoft and Novell are ending one of the software industry's longest-running feuds, bridging the chasm between Windows and Linux, apparently letting bygones be bygones.

Other big players are thrilled.

"This is truly a breakthrough," Hewlett-Packard's chief strategy officer, Shane Robison, gushed at Thursday's news conference in San Francisco.

Intel, AMD, IBM, Dell and SAP all offered congratulations on the milestone.

Even the father of Linux, Linus Torvalds, told me he's looking on the bright side.

"It's not as if everybody suddenly has started trusting Microsoft, so I suspect the debate over whether this is Microsoft cozying up to people in order to more easily slit their throats in the night will go on for some time," Torvalds said via e-mail.

"But hey, quite frankly, at least as far as I'm personally concerned, if we can all just sit and hold hands by the campfire and sing 'Kumbaya,' why not? No need to try to see monsters in the night if people really are trying to be friendly."

Microsoft has actually been heading in this direction for several years, not because it's warming to Linux but because it realized its products had to work with the freely shared open-source software now widely used by corporations and governments.

Linux, meanwhile, has evolved past its counterculture roots into a serious business product.

Microsoft isn't hooking up with garage hackers on a crusade to give the world free software; it's partnering with a Utah enterprise vendor that's distributing a business version of Linux polished by engineers at companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

It's also responding to other dramatic changes in the business-software landscape.

One was an announcement last week from Oracle, long a Microsoft rival, that it's supporting Red Hat Linux, the leading business version of the software and Novell's major rival. That made Novell an enemy of Microsoft's enemy.

Another factor is the rise of virtualization software that lets companies run multiple operating systems on a single server computer. That makes it mandatory for operating systems to work better together.

It may eventually make operating systems less important than the plumbing that holds it all together.

But coziness goes only so far. Microsoft still isn't touching Linux directly with its software. That could require it to share code under open-source licensing rules.

Instead, it is partnering with companies like Novell to produce a layer of software that connects Windows and Linux from a technical standpoint, but keeps them separate from a legal standpoint.

The real breakthrough was drafting legal agreements to allow these products to dance together, while tiptoeing around licensing restrictions.

Microsoft sorted that out in July when it reached a similar agreement with XenSource, a Palo Alto, Calif., open-source virtualization company.

The two have been working on ways to bridge Linux and Windows ever since, and XenSource recently opened an office in Redmond that's led by former Microsoft executives.

"Through agreements like the one with XenSource and the one announced with Novell, Microsoft has — I don't know if the word is creatively, astutely — structured agreements that protect their intellectual property yet still bring the benefits of interoperability and open source to their customer base," said John Bara, XenSource vice president of marketing.

Microsoft also gave a preview of the Novell agreement when it made similar "new beginnings" settlements with its other historical enemies, the companies that suffered from its antitrust violations in the 1990s.

Sun Microsystems, Netscape Communications and RealNetworks all took cash from Microsoft, reached licensing agreements and agreed to cooperate on making their products work better together.

What's different this time is that Novell and Microsoft haven't sorted out all their lawsuits but still figured out a way to work together.

Now that's progress.

Brier Dudley's column regularly appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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