You have to take a look at Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz's blog today. He has pledged the company will use its patents to defend Red Hat and Ubuntu. That's the headline, and I'm really happy to know that Sun's very extensive patent portfolio is available, just in case it is ever needed. You never know these days. And yes, I take that as a message in a bottle to Microsoft. But he says it in such an interesting and creative way, I think you'll be glad if you go and read the entire entry.
Whatever is happening at Sun, it is very welcome. Remember the bad old days, when Schwartz would say things like we see no place for Linux in the server space? I used to write articles comparing Sun to the community's toxic boyfriend. Well, it looks like this ambivalent boyfriend got some therapy, because he is talking a different talk.
In the blog entry, he compares the software industry with the newspaper industry, both of which produce creative content and both of which are undergoing a revolution away from tight control to user-generated materials. How can print media cope? They could, he points out, sue:
Now, traditional media could certainly take another tack. They could sue the new/technology media companies, claim they're stealing readers by violating patents held by traditional media. Imagine, "We patented text in columns! Classified ads in boxes! Captions on pictures! Headlines in large type!" But they'd be suing the community - the moral equivalent of suing subscribers - stepping over the line of editor, into the role of censor. And censoring free media is a particularly awkward plea for those that believe in freedom of the press
He analogizes to the software industry. He mentions that Sun in the old days exercised complete control over its software. I know many of you will agree with that. And then he writes about Linux:
And then our biggest competitor became, in the late 1990's, a product built by a company that aggregated and organized software from the open source community. They built little of their own, they relied on the software equivalent of community content, or Free and Open Source Software.
Could we have sued them? Sure. Sun has what I'd argue to be the single most valuable and focused patent portfolio on the web (and yes, we'd use it to defend Red Hat and Ubuntu, both). But suing the open source community would've been tantamount to a newspaper suing the authors of their letters to the editor. We would've been attempting to censor rather than embrace a free press. It might have felt good at the time, but it wouldn't have addressed the broader challenge - community content was becoming more interesting to our customers than our professional content.
Can you believe it? This is a new day at Sun, and he's trying to show Microsoft how to reinvent itself to benefit from the new, instead of trying to kill it off with patent infringement threats. And he's also letting them know there is more firepower against them than they realized. Will they listen? How would I know? I am the girl that called Sun a toxic boyfriend, and look at it now.
Mark Shuttleworth says a few words about Microsoft and patents today too:
They are a perfect target - they have deep pockets, and they have no option but to negotiate a settlement, or go to court, when confronted with a patent suit.
Microsoft already spends a huge amount of money on patent settlements (far, far more than they could hope to realise through patent licensing of their own portfolio). That number will creep upwards until itís abundantly clear to them that they would be better off if software patents were history.
In short, Microsoft will lose a patent trench war if they start one, and Iím sure that cooler heads in Redmond know that.