I read Richard Stallman’s post in which he expresses his concern about a serious danger with reliing on .NET for free software development. I think Richard makes very good points here, and I do agree that there’s a serious danger, but I don’t think Microsoft would ever bring all .NET implementations underground. If you think that, my opinion is you’re underestimating them.
Microsoft is smarter than that. They are a sworn enemy of free software, they’re ruthless, and they know all the anti-competitive tactics in the IT world. There’s no doubt they want to make our community divided and helpless. And when they look at the free software development ecosystem, they see two big groups:
A- Highly profitable vendors like Red Hat or Sun/Oracle.
B- Non-profit communities like Debian or Ubuntu (technically, Canonical is a for-profit venture, but they operate at loss).
There’s also 3rd parties that sell hardware or services and contribute “collateral” improvements to our codebase. I’ll ignore those for the sake of simplicity.
It would be silly to try harm group B with their patents, since it’s composed of grass-root efforts which can’t be unrepairably injured just by bringing a company out of bussiness. Besides, group B actually helps them promote their patent-encumbered standards. Why attack those who are helping you?
Ah, but as for group A, maybe they could use patents to shut it down? Perhaps, but I think they’re even smarter than that. Sun Tzu said: “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” If Mono-based applications become a significant competitive advantage (and it is in their agenda that they do), and their competitors are forbidden from using them, they will put all their effort in pushing for alternatives, even at great expense. I really think they know better.
I recently came across this very interesting article, written in 1999, which details the tactics used by Microsoft to fight IBM. They obviously saw OS/2 as a threat. Back then, Windows 95 was the trading token. They could have caused IBM a great deal of harm shall they refused to license it to them, but it seems the idea of subjugating IBM was more appealing. This is how Garry Norris (IBM) put it:
“Microsoft repeatedly said we would suffer in terms of prices, terms, conditions and support programs, as long as we were offering competing products.”
“[Microsoft] insisted that IBM sell 300,000 copies of Windows 95 in the first five months or face a 20 percent price increase”
Nice deal, eh? Make your dependancy on Windows 95 stronger, or else we’ll use your existing dependancy on Windows 95 against you. No surprise IBM abandoned the PC market. Are Red Hat and Sun/Oracle set on the same direction?
Draw your own conclussions. In my point of view, projects like Debian and Ubuntu are completely safe from direct patent threat. Should we care if Red Hat or Sun/Oracle succumb? Perhaps not, after all, what are they doing for us?