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Why Is Dell Buying SLES certificates from Microsoft, Not Novell? - Updated 2Xs
Wednesday, May 09 2007 @ 07:53 AM EDT

Linux-Watch had the news first:
According to sources, Dell will be selling SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) certificates, which it will obtain from Microsoft. As part of the Novell/Microsoft deal, Microsoft received 75,000 SLES licenses.

[Emphasis added by me.]

From Microsoft? The Direct2Dell blog confirms that indeed Dell will buy the certificates from Microsoft, not from Novell. Why? Why not directly from Novell?

First, Novell and Microsoft told us that they did the deal because customers were demanding it. Remember that? At the joint press announcement on November 2nd, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer told us, "The impetus from this event really comes from our customers." Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian said the same thing. Dell is saying the same thing. It's all about customer demand.

Yet Microsoft, after six months, still has so many certificates in hand with no takers that it will be Dell's supplier? What might that indicate, that Dell has to find customers for those certificates? The comments on that blog are 100% negative so far.

If you'd like to hear them tell you again how it's all about the customers, there is now a Novell-Microsoft "Interoperability Webinar" you can sign up for. Or, if you prefer to read about how they are being driven by customer demand, here's a summary [PDF] of the 2007 Open Source Think Tank conference held in March, where Novell's Justin Steinman and Microsoft's Sam Ramji defended the deal. You'll find the conference described in more detail on Business Review Online's Open Source Weblog, which is where I found it.

[ Update: Check out the partial video from the Think Tank conference. Ramji, asked whether Microsoft has IP in Linux, answers by mentioning all forms of the usual IP, but then he mentions "cloning" issues.]

Both men mention those clamoring customers who have not yet bought up all of Microsoft certificates but who are allegedly driving this deal.

Steinman says something else, that Novell found it necessary to sign the patent peace because Novell required "sanctioned access to Microsoft's code in order to develop open source interoperability without violating MSFT's IP." Yoohoo, EU Commission, are you listening?

By the way, precisely what IP would that be? Could someone tell us what Microsoft patents are allegedly involved? It seems Novell must know if Steinman makes such a statement. It can't just be some vague "maybe there might be some someday" kind of thing. You can't sell vague notions, can you? If Microsoft really has a leg to stand on, why not tell us like a man?

Oh, and are the Microsoft patents affected by the recent US Supreme Court ruling on obviousness? You don't know? Then why are you signing? Maybe that's why mostly folks are not interested in Microsoft's certificates.

Might there be an additional possible explanation for why Dell will be getting certificates from Microsoft instead of from Novell? Consider this: Recently FSF's Brett Smith said this on Groklaw about Microsoft and those certificates in answer to a reader question:

The deal between Microsoft and Novell also includes some marketing cooperation. Microsoft provides coupons for SUSE to companies, who then go to Novell to redeem the coupons and get their copy of the software. Those coupons procure the conveyance of lots of free software.

Our lawyers have seen the terms of the deal under NDA—unfortunately, they're still secret—but they're confident that Microsoft is already conveying GPLed software under this agreement. The coupons are the most direct proof; there is some other evidence to support that idea as well.

So, is it possible Microsoft just wants to get out of the SLES certificates business quick, most specifically before GPLv3 is final?

Update 2: Matthew Aslett at BusinessWire Online has followed up with Mr. Steinman at Novell, asking for confirmation that the quotation about needing sanctioned access to Microsoft's code is accurate. He reports a lengthy confirmatory response from Steinman, including this segment:

“Since we announced the Novell-Microsoft agreement in November, we've always said that the intellectual property agreement provided a foundation for the interoperability between Windows and SUSE Linux Enterprise. This foundation falls into two primary categories: 1) the "covenant not to sue," which provides customers with peace of mind when they deploy SUSE Linux Enterprise; and 2) the IP access necessary for the technical collaboration to deliver interoperability between Windows and Linux. For better or worse, the community and press at-large have focused on #1, although Novell has talked about both categories since we signed the agreement....

But in order to deliver the interoperability between Novell eDirectory and Microsoft Active Directory, as well as the bidirectional virtualization between Windows and SUSE Linux Enterprise, Novell required sanctioned access to Microsoft's code in order to develop open source interoperability without violating Microsoft's intellectual property.

I don't remember them saying that. Does that sound like the Microsoft patents involve Linux in any way? Or is he saying that they needed to have a "legal" way to look at and work with Microsoft's code? If that doesn't scare you away from Novell code, incidentally, knowing that they are looking at Microsoft's proprietary code, I can't help you. But notice in the video that Microsoft's guy spoke about laws regarding cloning, as well as copyright law and trade secret law. Think about some of the allegations in the SCO litigation, and extrapolate.

Aslett notices that the current story doesn't seem to match the earlier announcements about what the patent agreement was for. He is unable to find any earlier reference to the patent agreement having anything to do with access to Microsoft code. They told us, as I remember it, that there was no agreement between Microsoft and Novell, did they not? That this patent agreement was between Microsoft and SUSE paying end users directly. The interoperability, I thought, was something else. Now it seems there is some confusion. As Aslett points out, in the Novell FAQ, it stated:

“The patent agreement does not cover the development activities of Novell or Microsoft, and Novell has no plans to changes it development policies relating to patents.”

So which is true? Is this a patent license between the companies or not? You can find links to all the press releases and documents involved in this agreement on Groklaw's permanent Novell-Microsoft Deal page. Perhaps if enough eyeballs look through everything, we can find out if there were any earlier hints that the patent deal in any way had to do with interoperability work and/or was some kind of agreement between the two companies, as opposed to each company and the other's end users.

Further, a reader wrote to Novell and asked why Dell is buying vouchers from Microsoft and not Novell. Here is their answer, from Kevan Barney in the PR department:

There are several reasons Dell is buying the coupons from Microsoft. First, like all the certificates, these certificates are going to be used in mixed Windows-Linux environments and as incentives to get customers to buy more Windows by offering Linux as part of the package. So Microsoft sees value in providing Dell the SUSE Linux Enterprise certificates to promote more adoption of Windows. Second, Microsoft and Novell both felt it was important to get validation of this agreement by an independent systems vendor, and the best way for Dell to show support was to actually purchase certificates. The certificates are a unique offering that Novell created specifically for the Microsoft agreement, and thus it was important for Dell to consume the certificates as a symbol of their support for our agreement.

We learn some things from this. First, that the vouchers are not for SUSE Linux alone. They are for the two operating systems together. They are promoting a mixed environment, offering Linux as an inducement for folks to buy more Microsoft. What is Novell thinking? Second, I see no reason why Dell couldn't endorse the agreement by getting vouchers from Novell just as Microsoft did, so both could be involved in pushing them. Third, Dell is a "consumer" of the vouchers, he says. In what sense? They seem more a conduit to me. I thought about that a while before I realized what this might mean. I will follow up, but I guess they are consuming because of who is left holding the bag if no one wants to buy any vouchers. If Dell can sell them to others, fine and dandy for them, but Microsoft got paid, I guess, by Dell. I'll try to find out if Microsoft sold all its vouchers or if it will be selling any more in the future. But it sort of sounds like Dell has taken on the original Microsoft role. If there are no further consumers of these vouchers, they belong to Dell.

And this all raises yet another question in my mind. If Dell is the consumer, it can't pass along a patent peace. At least that is what they earlier told us about end users, that the patent peace isn't something that can pass downstream. So are Dell customers actually covered by the patent peace? How do we know for sure? If the patent peace is between Microsoft and paying SUSE end users, but they can't pass along the peace treaty, how can Dell pass that peace to anybody if it is the paying end user that bought all the vouchers? And if they can, can any other consumer of a voucher do so too?

This whole thing is getting more and more peculiar.

PS: Then there is the issue of how much can one believe a company's PR department. I found this funny, Rupert Goodwin's Profile at ZDNet, where he gives some advice to PR people I thought you might enjoy:

Dear PR - The probability of a successful pitch can be calculated by the following handy formula applied to the details of your client's latest wheeze.

3NT x 4UP x 2BI x 5EAI
----------------------------- = P(copy)
3M^3 x 2ACE x 10L

Where NT = New Technology, UP = Unique Product, BI = Beer Involved, EAI = Engineers Available for Interview, M = Marketing Managers, EMEA or Mornings, ACE = Already Covered Elsewhere (ie, your American brethren have already spilled the beans) and L = the word Leading or Leader in the first para of the press release.

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