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Monday, 12 April 2010 13:23

IBM and Linux: just a strategic interest


One thing that many people involved in the free and open source software community have a great deal of difficulty with is separating the personal from the professional.

This is probably why many have taken sides in the little spat that IBM is having with a company named TurboHercules.

Briefly put, IBM, irked by an anti-trust complaint filed by TurboHercules, a Paris-based company that is trying to monetise a open source mainframe emulator known as Hercules, wrote to the company, pointing out a list of 106 patents which it claimed TurboHercules could be infringing.

(Hercules is an emulator that runs on PC-based hardware and emulates the behaviour of a mainframe.)

Among those patents were two that are on a list of 500 patents which IBM asserted, back in 2005, that it would never wield against the FOSS community.

There are some, like anti-patent campaigner, Florian Mueller, who say this only proves that IBM is no friend of Linux. And there are others who claim that the whole move by TurboHercules is being propped up by, you guessed it, Microsoft and those in its camp.

Both sides are wrong for one simple reason: the people who run companies like IBM or Microsoft or Novell or HP, do not have friends or enemies. What they have is strategic interests. That's all.

TurboHercules initially tried to get IBM to license z/OS and z/VM, both proprietary IBM operating systems, for use on boxes using the emulator. IBM refused - to do so would have been cutting its own throat.

TurboHercules then filed an anti-trust complaint with the European Union. IBM's letter, laying out the list of 106 patents, followed.

After many outlets around the world picked up the story, IBM was asked by the chairman of the Linux Foundation, the genial Jim Zemlin, to clarify the situation. The company responded by re-affirming that nothing had changed from the stance it took in 2005.

But then why is IBM being asked to pledge loyalty to this side or that? Did IBM ask anyone before it got involved in FOSS big-time, using Linux and supporting its development? No, IBM did it on its own, because it made commercial sense at the time and still does.

You can be sure that if IBM's extensive use of Linux starts to affect its bottomline, the company will stop using it faster than you can say Jack Robinson.

FOSS people beat themselves into a lather, demanding that this company or that adhere to what they see as principles of the community. This naivety should end; there is no love or hate involved, only hard cash.

Don't forget that Novell was once seen as one of the saviours of Linux - until it bent over backwards in November 2006.

A few months back, there was a big fuss over the fact that Google had not contributed its Android-specific fixes to the main kernel. Google, like IBM, uses Linux because it makes more money by doing so that by utilising any other software.

Google practises its own "style" of open source; its decision-makers are not fools to develop something which could be commercially successful and then release it immediately so that all its competitors can benefit.

No, it holds on and releases the source only after making sure that sufficient time has gone by to force its competitors to roll their own software. By the time Google makes a release, it is well-nigh impossible for likely competitors to use Google's software - it would set them back in product development and mean possible losses. Once again, hard cash, dear reader, that is the only logic that prevails.

But then there is no rule about when the source for a GPL-ed product should be released in order to respect the terms of a licence. The same applies to other licences that qualify as open source. Many projects release immediately - but then they are doing so out of self-interest, to get others involved to help in development. Google does not need external developers; it has enough money to recruit the best, pay them and develop software that it has used to more or less take over the internet.

The same goes for IBM. The people who run the company look to its bottomline (and, incidentally, their own bonuses) first. Promises are made in order to look good and maintain a decent corporate profile but then when self-interest is involved, no promise is worth even the paper (or hard disk space) on which it is written.

Remember Google's pledge to do no evil? Ha, ha, ha!

People who are beating themselves up should wake up and realise that in the cold world of business, only money speaks. There is no act that is altruistic, it is all ultimately selfish. (That holds good for the human race at large, but then that's not a topic for this forum). Linux is neither a friend nor a foe to IBM; it is just a strategic interest.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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