Microsoft and Novell to play nice

Pact could join Windows, open-source worlds

Life just got a little easier for feds using Microsoft Windows and Linux platforms.

Under a recently announced partnership between Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc., agencies will benefit from Windows and Linux applications that will work together more seamlessly, industry analysts say.

It also may help agencies indemnify themselves against charges of using improperly licensed open-source software, a nascent but growing concern.

Earlier this month, the two companies announced they had signed a wide-ranging partnership to make Microsoft Windows and Linux more interoperable.

“For anyone who runs a mix of Microsoft Windows and Linux, especially [Novell’s] SUSE Linux, this is good news. It will make it easier for customers to manage these [mixed] environments,” said Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer during a media event announcing the partnership.

The two companies also will work jointly on developing software to make the two OSes play more nicely with one another, initially focusing on virtualization, asset management and document formats, Ballmer said. Microsoft and Novell will start a joint research laboratory to carry out the work.

Document deal

In the field of document sharing, for instance, Novell agreed to add Microsoft Office’s Open Extensible Markup Language format within the open-source Open Office suite, available on the company’s SUSE Enterprise Linux distribution. Currently, Open Office uses the Open Document Format, another XML format.

Microsoft also has agreed to not hold users of Novell products liable for any patent infringements against Microsoft that may be inherent in the open-source portions of Novell’s Linux package.

Obtaining freely available and open-source software outside the normal channels of procurement raises questions about the legal liability that such software carries, according to David Kaefer, Microsoft’s director of business development for intellectual property licensing.

If a software package improperly uses intellectual property, the end user can be held liable for infringement, Kaefer said. The patent agreement between the two companies would offer government users of SUSE Enterprise Linux indemnification from such legal actions, at least from Microsoft.

Kaefer did not detail what intellectual property of Microsoft’s might be illegally embedded within the SUSE Enterprise Linux package.

Bruce Sunstein, a lawyer who heads the patent practice group for Bromberg and Sunstein LLP of Boston, sees only a remote possibility of an agency being sued for using patent-infringing software.

“It depends on who you are. If you’re a large-enough target, I think you have some liability, especially if you’re a company competing with Microsoft. But if you’re just an end user, I’m not sure that is as serious of a problem,” Sunstein said.

He saw Microsoft’s tout of indemnification as mainly a marketing ploy.

Despite the questions surrounding indemnification, most observers see the partnership as a jump forward for users, vendors and the open-source community.

“We will closely monitor this new collaboration to see if it produces the kinds of savings and improved services that we are always on the lookout for,” said Karen Evans, Office of Management and Budget’s administrator for e-government and IT.

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