Microsoft Puts Linux Fear in Asia

Gretchen Gallen
REDMOND, Wash. – Feeling the gradual encroachment of Linux adoption on what was once solid Microsoft turf, the software giant has taken an offensive stance in Asia and is reportedly warning governments in China, Japan and South Korea that patent infringement lawsuits could result if they make the migration from Microsoft to Linux.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer put out the warning at the company's Asian Government Leaders Forum in Singapore recently, setting off a flurry of criticism that the software giant could not substantiate the legal warning and that it was merely trying to stave off losing its global dominance of the Windows operating system, particularly in such a Microsoft-saturated region as Asia.

Microsoft is presently denying that Ballmer ever made such remarks and instead is saying that he warned Asian officials that for countries entering the World Trade Organization, "somebody will come and look for money owing to the rights for that intellectual property."

Microsoft is saying that the warning was taken out of context and that Ballmer was instead citing a study done by Open Source Risk Management that claimed Linux violates more than 228 software patents, among those patents, 27 are owned by Microsoft and could give the software king cause to litigate.

But despite Microsoft's downplay of Ballmer's statement at the forum, prior reports have indicated that Microsoft executives have long planned a strategy to usurp Linux's popularity by using patents as a legal attack on open-source platforms. As it stands there has been a healthy response from companies making the switch from more costly licensing agreements with Microsoft to open-source alternatives.

There is also speculation that Microsoft's impetus behind sending out a warning to Asian leaders is because Singapore's Ministry of Defense last month made a massive overhaul of its IT infrastructure to open-source software. Other Asian countries have similarly begun to seek out open-source alternatives.

At the forum, Ballmer argued that Microsoft products are far more secure than open-source counterparts.

"It is more secure because we stand behind it, we fixed it, because we built it," Ballmer said. "Nobody ever knows who built open-source software."

Microsoft's denial of Ballmer's legal threat to Asian government officials directly contradicts a memo that began circulating two years ago in which Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard executives exchanged missives regarding Microsoft's pending strategy to stymie the rollout of Linux.

"Basically Microsoft is going to use the legal system to shut down open-source software, and for all of its cleverness, the GPL (general public license) makes it fairly easy unless a white knight steps in," said a Hewlett-Packard executive in the memo exchange.

(The GPL is intended to guarantee the right to distribute and change free software.)

The two-year-old memo also stated that Microsoft was very likely to attack open-source developers and Linux distributors, and named companies like Samba, Linux, Apache and Sendmail as likely candidates for intellectual property infringement.

So far, Microsoft apparently hasn't sued anyone over open-source software patent infringements, although the SCO Group and IBM have been embroiled a two-year lawsuit in which SCO claims Linux is based on SCO's Unix software.