Thursday, 07 June 2012 12:23

Red Hat deal with Microsoft is a bad idea

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In November 2006, when Novell signed a patent licensing deal with Microsoft, the free and open source software community, for the most part, was predictably appalled.

But recently when Red Hat announced that it had signed a deal with Microsoft to ensure that Linux could be installed on PCs that were Windows 8-capable - in other words, those that supported secure boot - there was very little outcry. Red Hat is now trying to justify this act.

In Novell's case, it was a last-ditch - albeit foolish - attempt to try and revive its business. After a series of unwise decisions that saw it lose its number-one position in the networking business (and yes, Microsoft, took it for a ride during those days), Novell had come to the point where it was willing to try anything. SUSE Linux was looked upon as some kind of saviour after Novell bought the company in 2003 but battles between suits and geeks ensured that neither party's tactics were implemented.

Hence Novell got into bed with Microsoft. One of Novell's best and brightest, Jeremy Allison, found the atmosphere suffocating and left the company in disgust, ending up later at Google.

But after Red Hat announced its Judas Iscariot act recently, the scenario is very different. Hell, we even have the announcement of the deal being made by the wispy-thin Matthew Garrett, once a renowned flame-master on mailing lists, but now one of the best and brightest at Red Hat, one who pledges allegiance to peace, civility, diversity, and probably the Dalai Lama too.

No senior engineer from Red Hat has left the company in disgust at its being tricked into signing a deal with Redmond to purchase a key for secure boot for Fedora. Any GNU/Linux distribution can buy its own key if it chooses to go the same route as Fedora. No doubt making this decison was an act of great charity by Red Hat, done solely to point others towards the one true path. (corrected) The cost isn't important - it's just $US99 - but isn't the principle of it the reason why GNU/Linux distributions have avoided Microsoft all along?


You see, the whole secure boot approach is a major smokescreen introduced by a rather panic-stricken Microsoft, in the hope that it will at least be able to protect its turf with this initiative. Secure boot means that only an operating system which is recognised by a key in the firmware will be allowed to boot on a given device.

Believe me, after 17 years of disasters, the lack of security in Windows is of no bother to Microsoft. It has managed the issue as a PR problem and succeeded in getting people to treat it as just that. I'm surprised that dictionaries worldwide have not redefined the word security to mean "anything that has nothing to do with Microsoft". Microsoft is the Typhoid Mary of the internet, and will always be so.

No agency will give Microsoft grief on this score. The US government has long passed the point when it would pull the company into line; that point was passed after the anti-trust trial of the late 1990s. Had a Democrat administration been returned to office in 2000, the company would probably have been broken up into operating systems and applications divisions and that would have put it in its place. But we had the emergence of Dubya instead and Microsoft polished its lobbying skills, hired a few more smooth talkers to haunt Capitol Hill, and has never looked back.

Since then, Microsoft, under the wise (?) guidance of Steve Ballmer, has tried to enter various markets and failed. Abysmally. Music, Search, Mobiles, Tablets - the buzz-word in any of these silos is not Microsoft. It's not even second or third. The only market it can cling to is the desktop, an area in transition. And looking over its shoulder it can see Google approaching in the distance with its Linux-based Chrome OS.

Understandably, Microsoft wants some way of locking down this area. Hence the introduction of secure boot. The message echoes around - Microsoft is finally taking security seriously. Tell that to someone like security guru Bruce Schneier and he will laugh cynically. You could have a one-hour laughter session if you had a few others like Marc Maiffret and Dave Aitel present as well.


Companies that are using GNU/Linux to make themselves profitable could have easily called this bluff.

Besides Red Hat - now a billion-dollar company - there's IBM, Intel, Novell, Google, Facebook, HP, Dell, Canonical, all needing Linux. There are a host of others, including Samsung, LG and HTC, all dependent on Android. Even Oracle would have joined - it lives off Linux too (and Larry Ellison hates Bill Gates which would have tipped the scales). It would have been a cakewalk to persuade hardware providers to provide for them too.

Linux has no need of secure boot. But nobody working in the field has the balls to say it. Windows does - it is the cesspit where every virus, worm, and rootkit lives and thrives. Iran would have had no reason to worry about its nuclear secrets being stolen if it was using UNIX-based systems.

But these companies, who collectively have much more muscle than Microsoft in the computer industry, just couldn't be bothered. That left the door open for Red Hat to indulge in grandstanding.

One of the great Peanuts cartoon by the late Charles M. Schulz tells us all about Microsoft in a couple of pages. It is the US football season, and along comes Lucy, with a pigskin in her hand, asking Charlie Brown to kick it while she holds it for him. Charlie Brown refuses, reminding her that she has done this many times in the past, only to pull it away at the last minute, resulting in him falling flat on his back.

But Lucy, remember gentle reader, is the persistent sort. And so, finally, Charlie Brown gives in, and comes charging up - only to fall flat on his back as she yanks the ball away at the last second. And she walks away, muttering something about his undying faith in human nature being an inspiration to all and sundry.

What better illustration of the way Microsoft does things? It is repeatedly able to persuade seemingly sane companies to join hands with it - and then yanks the equivalent of the ball away at the last minute. This has happened right from the days when it short-changed Gary Kildall before MS-DOS even existed. And it has gone on right through its existence. Embrace, extend and extinguish is what has made Microsoft. It knows no other methods.

Red Hat will find out over the next few years that the leopard never changes its spots.

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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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