Is a Linux Civil War in the Making?

Opinion: Is Microsoft just selling the ammo? Or, is Microsoft fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapons?

Microsofts partnership with Novell got a lot of people in the open-source community fired up. Since then, Microsofts Linux deals with Linspire and Xandros have just thrown gasoline on the fire. Now, it appears that Red Hat, the leading Linux company and the most vocal opponent to Microsoft wheeling and dealing, tried to make its own deal with Microsoft before the Novell one was released.

So, whats going on here? As Kevin Carmony, Linspires CEO and president, rhetorically asks in his latest public column, "Is Linux Splitting into Two Factions?"

Carmony says: "Saying that Linux is going to be torn in two makes for good press and lively debates, but this is certainly nothing new for Linux. There are far more material splits today in the Linux world, such as Debian vs. RPM, KDE vs. GNOME, Distro A vs. Distro B, and so on. These divisions are quite material, and dilute significant energy and efforts across competing standards. However, we accept this as the price we pay for freedom of choice."

I see the current uproar between those who partner with Microsoft--Novell, Linspire and Xandros--and those that swear off Microsoft partnerships—Ubuntu and Mandriva—as being just another variation on the theme of open-source pragmatism versus free software idealism.

On the one side, you have those who believe in open source as the best possible way of writing code. For them, open source is just the most practical way to create the best programs. If hardware companies—like graphic card vendors ATI and NVIDIA refusing to open up their devices enough to create true open-source drivers--wont cooperate, you find other ways to make their hardware work. Companies that buy into this approach are far more likely to play "Lets Make a Deal" with Microsoft.

On the other side, you have those that believe that for free software to really work in the long run there must be no compromises with the forces of proprietary software and hardware. For them, working with a Microsoft is out of the question. The perfect example of a group on this side is the Free Software Foundation with the GPLv3 license, which will be released on June 29.

The real world though isnt black and white. Open source versus free software, Microsoft Linux partners vs. non-Microsoft Linux partners, is a spectrum, not an either/or choice.

Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, for example, has stated that hes not about to make a patent deal with Microsoft. He hasnt, however, ruled out making other kinds of partnerships with Microsoft. Novell, on the other hand, Microsoft patent deal and all, has said time and again that it doesnt agree with Microsofts nonsense that having a patent agreement means agreeing that Microsoft patents have anything to do with Linux.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about the secrets of the Microsoft-Novell patent deal.

For that matter, both Linus Torvalds and the rest of the Linux kernels core developers have made it crystal clear that you can forget about them switching Linux to the GPLv3.

Differences and all, though, the Linux companies still have more in common with each other than they do with Microsoft no matter who partners with the Windows giant or who doesnt. One way or the other, theyre all out to carve out their own chunk from Microsofts territory.

Novell wants to make both its desktop and server offering seamless choices for enterprises that already are invested in Windows. Ubuntu, with its happy consumer desktop partner Dell, wants desktop PC users to know that they can buy a great Linux desktop instead of Vista.

Microsoft knows this. For me, there wasnt anything in the least bit surprising about Microsoft not even considering joining with the pro-open-source OIN (Open Invention Network) patent consortium.

Microsoft will partner with a Linux company; the boys from Redmond wont partner with the free software/open-source ideas behind a Linux company. If they were to join the OIN, that is exactly what theyd be doing, and theyre not going there.

Sure, Microsoft loves to see the Linux companies fighting with each other. Microsoft hopes that this will lead to a repeat of the Unix wars of the late 80s and early 90s, which made sure that the Unix businesses never mounted a successful challenge to Microsofts desktop operating system business and eventually lost the x86 server market to Microsofts own NT, which was followed by Windows 2000 and Server 2003.

Linux isnt Unix though. Regardless of what happens with any single Linux company, the open code behind Linux and the other open-source companies remains, and more importantly, the business plans you can build around that open-source code remain.

At the end of the day, Microsoft wants to sell you a unique, proprietary product. No matter where a business falls on the open-source/free-software spectrum, it wants to sell you support and the freedom to make your own IT way. You can argue endlessly about Ubuntu being better than Vista or Windows Server 2003 delivering a higher TCO than Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, but heres the part that Microsoft really, really hates and can no longer deny: Both approaches create workable software.

So, here we are: Microsoft is making Linux partners. Microsoft is making patent claims. Microsoft is trying to stir up controversy. But, as my grandpa might have put it, "Microsoft is still bringing cards to a horseshoes tournament." No matter how Microsoft tries to stack this deck, Microsoft is not going to win.

/zimages/5/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.