Ballmer Bearish on Open Source

By Susan Kuchinskas

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Microsoft's No.2 man Steve Ballmer urged Asian government leaders not to take sides in the Linux versus Windows debate.

"We recommend to all governments that they not get emotionally involved in preferring either software that comes from commercial companies or Open Source software, Ballmer told a group of Asian government leaders on Thursday.

"We think the most sensible policy for most governments to take is a policy of neutrality, picking the software for a given application that actually makes most sense relative to the government's needs."

Ballmer was addressing the Government Leaders Forum, held November 18 in Singapore. He responded to a questioner who said Asian governments support open source software because of licensing costs and because they can see the source code.

Ballmer pointed out that licensing costs may be only a small percentage of the total cost of ownership of a piece of software. "You've got to install it, you've got to deploy it, you've got to develop for it, you've got to manage it, you've got to create and buy applications from it, and all of those costs are probably about 90 percent of the total cost," he said.

Ballmer said governments should remain neutral and evaluate software on its own merits. "Taking a position, open source versus commercial software, is almost like taking a position on which economic model for society is better," he said.

But Ballmer's allusion to a recent report on issues with Linux sparked emotion among those who saw them as a threat to governments considering OSS.

"Open source software does not today respect the intellectual property rights of any intellectual property holder," Ballmer said. "There was a report out this summer by an Open source group that highlighted that Linux violates over 228 patents. Some day, for all countries that are entering WTO, somebody will come and look for money to pay for the patent rights for that intellectual property."

In August, Open Source Risk Management (OSRM) said an analysis of the Linux kernel found 283 patents that could cover the basic open-source operating system. Microsoft holds 27 of the patents identified by the group, which provides consulting services as well as vendor-neutral indemnification to clients.

But Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and counsel to the OSRM, said that number is more an indication of problems in the U.S. patent system than of actual intellectual property risks in the software.

"He totally mischaracterized (the report)," Ravicher said. "It wasn't a conclusion that any of the patents were valid or actually infringed upon."

Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with IT research firm RedMonk, said that while there certainly are IP potential patent infringement risks associated with open source software, "I don't know they're materially different than those faced by proprietary software vendors."

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