Filed in archive Enterprise Software by Scott Wilson on October 15, 2007
Hard on the heels of Steve Ballmer's recently renewed campaign of veiled threats, it's hard for some people not to see a Microsoft hand in all this, and indeed Groklaw spends a significant amount of screen space delving into the potential conspiracy theory involving a Microsoft/Acacia connection. Except it turns out Acacia has sued Microsoft, too. But then this is business, and the whole friends/enemies thing doesn't really apply.
The patent itself, while quite technical, also seems quite obvious, not that anyone cares. It's a PARC legacy dealing with object-based user interfaces, but it was filed in '87, well after most of the important developments in graphical UI broke ground, and to my untrained eye it seems a predictable and even inevitable outgrowth of those basics. Which means it's a crappy patent; again, not that anyone cares. But what does it mean for Linux?
This stands in some contrast to the sort of actions Ballmer has been telegraphing, and though Rob Enderle has posted a fascinating bit of logic describing a scenario in which some sort of behind-the-scenes Microsoft involvement in this suit against one of their own business partners (Novell) might make sense, he doesn't believe it an neither do I.
I have to admit that when I first heard it, it did sound like the sort of trial balloon that a major corporation like Microsoft might want to have some ostensibly unrelated third party send up before heading down that path themselves and I have no doubt they will be watching it with some interest, but it does fly in the face of their newer, gentler, and more subtle approach of co-opting Linux vendors in licensing deals. Or perhaps it shows a stick to their carrot... we'll have to see how the suit progresses.
In any event, it doesn't seem to set any precedent of the thing that CIOs have to fear most, which is patent holders coming after users. While it doesn't preclude such action in the future, it does seem to indicate that the high-priced legal guns have decided that's not the best course. If that's true for Acacia-which has no stake in preserving customers but simply exists as a lean, mean, suing machine-it's doubly true for Microsoft, which does risk alienating customers who use both Linux and Windows and also has to consider the response of federal regulators eager to stomp out monopolistic practices wherever they may be found.
The big question may be whether this will go the route of the SCO suits or if it will result in settlements, such as the recent suit over the same patent filed against Apple. If Red Hat and Novell settle, one wonders what will really have been accomplished and what the next step is for Acacia. How will they sue Debian, exactly? Gentoo? Knoppix? The list goes on and as the distributions become smaller and less well-organized (and financed) then what seems to be the main motivation for Acacia-the money-disappears. This is an entirely different motivation than Microsoft's desire to eradicate a competitor and so I doubt the outcome will be particularly telling when it comes to the main event of Microsoft versus Linux in the long run.