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What Does MS Want? -- Brains for Sale?
Friday, June 15 2007 @ 01:21 AM EDT

I found a video on the Novell-Microsoft Interop Ability page that clears up for me at least part of what Microsoft wants from deals like the deal with Novell. The video is from Brainshare 2007, with Novell's Jeff Jaffe and Microsoft's Chief Research Strategy Officer Craig Mundie both onstage talking about the deal. Mundie said that Microsoft has traditionally innovated in two ways: primarily inhouse but also by bringing in research from academia. Microsoft wants a bridge, Mundie said, to the Open Source business community like the one it has traditionally had with academia.

Just what is that bridge Microsoft has had with academia, I wondered? What does Microsoft have in mind for Open Source businesses that sign up for that bridge?

Here's a transcript of his remarks, first, on this topic:

So for the last few years as we talked to the customer base and it became absolutely clear they were going to have a mixed environment, they really pushed on us a lot to work on resolving the interoperability question. But they also pushed on us a lot about the question of continuing the innovation. In particular, they want innovation not only on features and capability but increasingly around costs and cost containment manageability as well as security, privacy, and other things.

We've always done our innovation in two ways: primarily within the Microsoft research and development environment but also learning a lot and bringing a lot in from the research that happens in the university environment. The Open Source community of course is one that basically takes the university model and it brings the community environment forward. I think it's always been important to have the bridge between the university environment and the commercial environment. We've done that. What we've done in the last six months with Novell we're trying to build this similar kind of bridge between the community business environment around software that we've had in the academic environment for many years.

The ... innovation, I think, is going to be critical at all levels in software, especially within this platform environment. Today the industry is really behind where customers want us to be in terms of being able to allow them to reduce costs. As Ron said we're at the beginning of a cycle of rapid innovation within the hardware platform. As the capabilities grow in these systems, there is increasingly the opportunity to squeeze cost out of the system at a time when people are increasingly having large investments in data centers and online service components in their business. And this is really where they're pushing us. So I think going forward it's going to be important to allow this mix and match environment. We're fully committed to supporting that. And this arrangement, I think, is moving in the right direction.

That depends on where one wishes to end up, I'd say, as to whether this is the right direction. It also raises the question, the right direction for whom? I did a little digging, and here's some information on how Microsoft interacts with universities:

The External Research and University Relations groups within Microsoft Research are dedicated to building world-class relationships with leading universities, government agencies, professional organizations, and industry partners to advance research, enhance the teaching and learning experience, inspire technological innovation, establish Microsoft as a valuable research and technology partner for higher education, and cultivate the next generation of thought leaders.

OK. I guess that means Microsoft picks their brains. Is that what it wants to do with FOSS? The Microsoft group for North and Latin America has a page explaining their work:

At External Research & Programs, we are focused on advancing the state of the art of computing. We collaborate with university researchers around the world, focusing on current real-world issues, cutting-edge research, challenges facing the academic ecosystem, and innovative approaches to education that prepare students for the challenges of the future. This is achieved through a variety of global and regional initiatives and programs — including funding university research projects in specific areas, working with faculty across the globe to develop curriculum, and making source code available through our Shared Source Program to support teaching and research. In addition, we offer PhD and faculty fellowships to cultivate the next generation of computer science leaders.

So, Microsoft sprinkles academia with some money, presumably less than Microsoft makes from picking their innovative brains, and it sells what they dream up. Sailesh Chutani, Director of External Research & Programs Group at Microsoft Research, explains how it works:

Academia is home to creative thinkers and the birthplace of much innovation.

Collaboration Opportunities

At External Research & Programs (ER&P), we understand the vital role academia plays in the future of our world. Our purpose is to collaborate with leading research universities, government agencies, professional organizations and industry partners to enhance the teaching and learning experience, inspire technological innovation, and cultivate the next generation of thought leaders.

In support of this vision, we invest in innovative research. Every year we publish requests for proposals (RFPs) in specific subject areas and award software, technical resources and funding — $4 million (U.S.) in 2006 alone to the most promising researchers. We create joint research institutes and host academic summits, workshops and symposiums to bring together the leaders of academic communities. We also award annual fellowships and internships. Through the Microsoft® Research New Faculty Fellowship program, we award $1 million to five exceptionally talented academic researchers each year.

Through a variety of global and regional programs like these, we support groundbreaking research in areas as diverse as bioinformatics, environmental sciences and robotics — fields Microsoft is not typically associated with. We invite you to explore with us the vast range of disciplines in which, together, we can partner to improve the quality of people’s lives in every part of the world.

So when Microsoft needs a certain problem solved, it hires innovation from outside, as needed. That's undoubtedly cheaper than it would be to hire all those brainy people and have to pay for salaries and for their dental and medical care year after year and to set up retirement plans, etc. The research isn't whatever the universities feel like doing. It's whatever Microsoft needs doing. They are paying, after all. A current area of research is in search, which will not surprise you:

Our work includes an RFP for Accelerating Search in Academic Research, designed to improve Internet search technologies, as well as data mining, discovery and analysis. To enable research, 13 awardees have access to MSN® data logs. ER&P also provides ongoing support for the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, where researchers are developing tools that enable users of mobile devices to be more effective. At Cornell University, we supported the 3D Journal Project, which focused on developing a sketch-based interface for computer-aided design. Other projects include a platform for robotics-enhanced computer-science instruction and a research platform for sensor networks using service-oriented architectures.

I'm sure it is a lot of fun, for those researchers. But if I extrapolate to Novell, I see Microsoft getting Novell to code for them things like an OpenXML-ODF thingie that can fool some ISO committees and some PHBs into thinking it'll do. That doesn't help ODF, of course, but it's Microsoft's money, so they pay for what they want. Here's a bit more detail on the search initiative:

Microsoft Research has teams worldwide focusing on advancing the way users interact with computing devices. This includes search, access, and information management. Microsoft researchers are also investigating ways to advance Internet-scale searching, working on the core technologies for providing the most relevant and freshest search results possible.

Our goal in this initiative is to bring the current Web search to the next level by applying data mining, machine learning, computational semantic, and knowledge discovery techniques to information analysis, organization and retrieval while answering the following questions: What is the paradigm which will enable search to cope with the dynamic nature of the Web? How does one identify trends and bring the knowledge back to the user?

Ultimately we hope to advance research in desktop and Web information retrieval by understanding and advancing the scope, variety and quality of the knowledge exchange among individuals and communities on computing devices.

The 2007 research themes of the Internet Technologies and Cultures initiative (Search, Personalization, Voice) are summarized in the Call to Action on Information Finding via Discovery, Recovery, Delivery.

So, I understand this to mean that Microsoft pays these researchers to think and study and figure out ways to innovate in search so Microsoft can beat Google and Yahoo. Microsoft, I would guess, gets rights to the IP in some fashion. No wonder it has spent a fair amount of effort trying to get the community to drop the GPL and adopt the BSD license instead.

So. What does it mean for FOSS that Mundie says it wants a similar bridge with Open Source businesses? I think it means Microsoft would like to pick your brains and have you code for them for free, and it will sprinkle some money on vendors who sell your code, so they'll go along. The patent deals keep Microsoft in control, and thus, shazaam, it remains the dominant software world power, and you help them stay that way, not as compensated employees, but as free-as-in-beer worker bees. Linux companies get the money. You get to innovate your brains out, but only for fun or for the benefit of Microsoft, under their direction.

What if every Linux vendor in the world agreed to the plan? You would, then, I gather, have to work your brains in one of two places: locked inside Microsoft's iron embrace meeting its needs or in the noncommercial space, like an academic researcher.

I don't know if Microsoft sincerely believes that FOSS coders aren't interested in selling their solutions, but in any case, Microsoft is wrong. When Linus said it was all "Just for Fun," he didn't mean he wasn't intending to take over the world. He meant he was having fun doing it.

Of course, in Microsoft's plan, it would be the end of competition against Microsoft by the GPL or by anybody in any real way, because one misstep, and Microsoft reserves the right to sue your pants off.

Now I get the hobbyist part of the Novell deal, I think. Remember the Microsoft’s Patent Pledge for Non-Compensated Developers?

Many software developers, often referred to as “hobbyists,” write code not with the expectation of making money, but because they enjoy solving technical challenges and participating in a community of enthusiasts who recognize and encourage one another’s talents. One such community of hobbyist developers participate in the development of open source software. To further encourage these efforts, this pledge provides non-compensated individual hobbyist developers royalty-free use of Microsoft patents as set forth below.

It is Microsoft’s intent that this pledge be legally binding and enforceable as to individual hobbyist developers according to the terms below.

Non-Assertion of Patents Pledge

Microsoft hereby covenants not to assert Microsoft Patents against each Non-Compensated Individual Hobbyist Developer (also referred to as “You”) for Your personal creation of an originally authored work (“Original Work”) and personal use of Your Original Work. This pledge is personal to You and does not apply to the use of Your Original Work by others or to the distribution of Your Original Work by You or others. A “Non-Compensated Individual Hobbyist Developer” is an individual software developer (i.e., a person and not any corporation, partnership or other legal entity), including a developer of open source software, who receives no monetary payment or any other forms of consideration that can be valued monetarily for their creation of their Original Works. The fact that You may be employed as a software developer by, and receive a salary from, a corporation, partnership or other legal entity, does not disqualify You from treatment as a “Non-Compensated Individual Hobbyist Developer” under this pledge, provided Your activities related to the creation of Your Original Work are performed during Your free time and outside the scope of Your employment. The Microsoft Patents subject to this pledge are all patents issued world-wide to the extent they are owned or controlled by Microsoft or its majority owned subsidiaries. For additional information on obtaining rights under Microsoft patents to contribute Your Original Work to an open source project, please see Microsoft’s Patent Pledge for Hobbyist Contributors.

Microsoft reserves the right to terminate and revoke this pledge to You, as of the date granted, if You or an entity that You control asserts a patent infringement claim against a Microsoft product, service or technology.

Reservation of Rights

Microsoft further reserves the right to prospectively update and revise the terms of this pledge, for example to accommodate applicable laws, rules, orders or regulations. The rights provided under this pledge are personal to You and are not for the benefit of others. All rights not expressly granted in this pledge are reserved by Microsoft.

And here is that pledge to openSUSE contributors:

Microsoft’s Patent Pledge for Individual Contributors to openSUSE.org

From time to time, individual developers wish to contribute their authored code to openSUSE.org projects. It is Microsoft’s intent that this pledge be legally binding and enforceable as to such individual contributors according to the terms below.

Non-Assertion of Patents Pledge

Microsoft hereby covenants not to assert Microsoft Patents against each Individual Contributor (also referred to as “You”) for Your distribution of Your personally authored original work (“Original Work”) directly to openSUSE.org, but only if, and to the extent, (i) Your Original Work becomes part of SUSE Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop or SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, and (ii) You ensure that as a result of Your contribution, openSUSE.org, and all further recipients of Your Original Work, do not receive any licenses, covenants or any other rights under any Microsoft intellectual property. This pledge is personal to You and does not apply to any use or distribution of Your Original Work by others.

There are a variety of ways to satisfy the requirement under section (ii) above. For example, one way to satisfy the requirement under US law is for openSUSE.org to include the following provision as is in its binding contribution agreement with You:

openSUSE.org agrees that as a condition of receiving the attached contribution of Your Original Work, openSUSE.org does not receive from You the contributor any licenses, covenants or any other rights under any Microsoft intellectual property with respect to that Original Work, and openSUSE.org will ensure that all further recipients of this Original Work will be subject to this same condition. “Original Work” has the meaning as set forth in Microsoft’s Patents Pledge for Individual Contributors to openSUSE.org.

An “Individual Contributor” is an individual open source software developer (and not any corporation, partnership or other legal entity). All Microsoft’s utility patents worldwide are subject to this pledge to the extent they are owned or controlled by Microsoft or its majority owned subsidiaries.

Reservation of Rights

Microsoft reserves the right to terminate and revoke this pledge to You, as of the date granted, if You or an entity that You control asserts a patent infringement claim against a Microsoft product, service or technology.

Microsoft further reserves the right to terminate this pledge and revoke this pledge to You upon the expiration or termination of that certain patent agreement entered into by and between Microsoft and Novell Inc., dated as of November 2, 2006.

In addition, Microsoft reserves the right to prospectively update and revise the terms of this pledge, for example to accommodate applicable laws, rules, orders or regulations. The rights provided under this pledge are personal to You and are not for the benefit of others. All rights not expressly granted in this pledge are reserved by Microsoft.

When Mundie said that Microsoft wants to build a bridge to Open Source businesses like the bridge it has to academia, then, have I misunderstood or is he saying he wants FOSS to become, instead of a competitor, more like a kind of cheap subsidiary that innovates principally for Microsoft's benefit? Microsoft gets innovation and code and makes money from it. Maybe some patents you didn't notice, too. Linux vendors on the bridge make some money. You get nothing.


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