A key Linux developer has predicted Microsoft will use its huge patent portfolio to cripple smartphone competitors and boost its woeful Windows Mobile market share.
Microsoft will increasingly utilise its patent library to try and stifle any competition for netbook OSes and reassert itself in the mobile phone space, a prominent open source developer has argued.
"The next war around devices is going to be netbooks, mobile phones and the appliance market," Jeremy Allison said during a presentation at Linux.conf.au in Wellington. "Microsoft is just waking up to the fact they have to quash this threat to maintain control of the desktop. Once alternative devices become popular, desktops become less important. People will write apps that aren't locked to one platform and it's always been about "developers, developers, developers" at Microsoft."
Allison is one of the lead developers for Samba, the well-regarded open source tool for making Windows servers accessible to Linux systems, which has given him plenty of first-hand experience with Microsoft's competitive tactics. He drew on that experience in his presentation on the relationship between the free software community and the Redmond software giant.
Development of Samba has frequently required careful reverse engineering, since Microsoft historically provided no documentation for its protocols and often extended existing standards to minimise interoperability with non-Microsoft products.
In that area, things have actually improved, especially since a landmark legal case in the European Union in 2004 saw Microsoft ordered to make more interoperability information available. "Microsoft engineers work incredibly well with Samba," Allison said during the presentation. "They go above and beyond the call of what they're required to do. I have no quarrels with Microsoft engineers whatsoever." At the time of Vista's release, Microsoft was even urging the Samba development team to rush out a new release, to stop the flow of support calls saying the new OS had broken existing implementations, Allison said.
While the Samba story has had a happy-ish ending, Allison argues that Microsoft's approach to the free software market remains one of vicious competition using any possible means. "Their business model essentially depends on maintaining a desktop monopoly and extending that into other areas," he said. "They present a friendlier face these days but I don't think that internally the company has changed."
For instance, Microsoft has introduced compatibility plug-ins for the open ODF format in its Office suite, but Allison said it isn't a realistic solution for most businesses. "They've done it badly, and with all the goodwill of a six year old being told to clean up its room."
Having met limited success with attempts to block access to protocols and with developing its own standards, Microsoft's main defensive tactic against open source is to use its patent portfolio, Allison said, describing it as the "nuclear option".
"Patents are still a monstrous threat. All the other strategies have failed to prevent the spread of free software."
That strategy is likely to be particularly prominent in the market for non-PC devices such as netbooks and smart phones, where Windows doesn't enjoy the same strength of market share. While co-marketing schemes have seen former Linux supporters such as Asus largely shift to Windows, maintaining overall share and eliminating new competitors is critical to Microsoft's survival, Allison said.