For a long time, Microsoft collectively shrugged when it came to Linux matters. Then about two years ago, the desktop software monopolist poached a Linux specialist from IBM by the name of Bill Hilf to help the company understand Linux issues. Hilf has publicly scorned suggestions that Linux could one day be a force on the desktop. "Every year someone says that this year is going to be the year of Linux on the desktop," he smirked recently.
So Microsoft has been through the ignoring and laughing phases, now it looks like the software juggernaut is putting on the gloves and has begun to fight. Having already lost the search engine war to Google, Microsoft seems determined not to let Linux weaken the desktop franchise that underpins the bulk of its revenue. And you know a company is really worried when it plays the litigation card.
Microsoft has tens of billions in the bank, some of which has been used to fight and settle the various anti-trust and other legal disputes it finds itself mired in around the world. Judging by CEO Ballmer's recent comments in Forbes, however, we may be approaching the stage where Microsoft may use some more of its vast cash reserves to launch its own legal case against the leading players of the Linux community with regards to alleged infringements on Microsoft's intellectual property.
In his Forbes interview, Ballmer said: "I think there are experts who claim Linux violates our intellectual property. I'm not going to comment. But to the degree that that's the case, of course we owe it to our shareholders to have a strategy." Ballmer was very careful and very measured in his statement, suggesting that things are afoot with regards to this matter.
The basis upon which Microsoft could conceivably launch litigation would be alleged infringement on its patents within parts of the Linux source code. However, whether Microsoft would be prepared to take on Linux providers like IBM, HP and Novell, much less Linux users, is another matter.
Despite the increase in rhetoric from Microsoft, however, industry watchers tend to agree that any legal suit by the software company against the Linux community, vendors or users, would be counterproductive and are sceptical that it will happen. Many among Microsoft's customer base are in fact Linux users and the company would not want to alienate them. However, the fact that conjecture about litigation has begun to arise is interesting in itself. The thing that remains to be seen is whether phase four of Maddog's prophesy comes to fruition.