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Get Off IBM's Back Already!

IBM Supports Linux

  • April 8, 2010
  • By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
The recent attacks on IBM patent use by some in the open-source community are way out of line.

First things first, I hate software patents as much as the next open-source supporter, but the recent claims that IBM has betrayed open-source with recent patent claims are way over the top. If it were just one person throwing mud at IBM I wouldn't bother with responding to this, but with many other open-source advocates are jumping with both feet on IBM over the issue, I have to address it.

The story starts with open-source developer and political lobbyist Florian Mueller accusing IBM of breaking its promises to the FOSS (free and open-source software) community of not using patents against it. What had raised Mueller's ire was that a letter from IBM CTO Mark Anzani to TurboHercules President Roger Bowler dated March 11, warning that IBM would defend its patents if TurboHercules used them without permission. TurboHercules sells an open-source virtualization program that lets users run z/OS and other mainframe operating systems on AMD, Intel, and other mainstream processors.

While Mueller and I usually see eye to eye on patent issues, I don't think that an IBM executive sending a letter, not a lawsuit, over TurboHercules' possible misuse of up to 173-patents, including two that are covered by IBM's patent pledge to open source, rises to the level of IBM being hypocritical with its patents and open source. Or, that the European Union should start "Regulatory intervention against IBM."

Simon Phipps, former master of all things open source for Sun, wrote that IBM actions against TurboHercules "indicates a change in the balance of power inside IBM, one probably reflected in other large corporations, as cloud computing rises in prominence and as the main disruptive force becomes Google -- a large user of FOSS -- instead of Microsoft." Phipps concluded, "IBM doesn't seem to need the FOSS community as a stick to beat its foes any more. This action tells us that there is now no FOSS advocacy function at IBM with the authority to veto actions against open source. All of us need to take note of this development."

Excuse me. IBM has long been one of Linux and open source's main supporters, and they still are. They did it then, and they do it now, not because IBM executives believe that open source is somehow the morally right decision. IBM supports open source because it makes good business sense. In short, IBM is an open source business.

IBM is a Linux Company, IBM is a Mainframe Company

That said, IBM has also always guarded their mainframe technologies against all comers. A company can be both pro-open source and try to defend one of its core businesses. Indeed, IBM is doing just a company should do: Trying to make money as efficiently as it can. An official mentioning two patents in a laundry list of patent complaints to a company IBM sees as a competitor has not turned IBM into, as Mueller would have it, a company that is "hostile, dangerous and utterly hypocritical" towards open source.

I'm not the only one who has trouble seeing IBM that way. Jim Zemlin, the head of the Linux Foundation, wrote , "IBM is one of the top contributors to the Linux kernel and dozens of critical open source projects. For more than a decade IBM has been a good citizen in the open source community. To get to the bottom of things I contacted Dan Frye, VP of Open Systems Development at IBM and member of the Linux Foundations board of directors, to 'say it wasn't so.' Fortunately all of us can breathe easy - IBM remains true to their word."

Frye, according to Zemlin, wrote, "IBM stands by this 2005 Non-Assertion Pledge today as strongly as it did then. IBM will not sue for the infringement of any of those 500 patents by any Open Source Software." Well, that seems straight-forward enough, but no! Mueller snapped back, "Jim Zemlin (Linux Foundation) acting as His Master's Voice."

Come on! What really bothers about this entire affair though isn't the patent issue at all. To me, IBM's letter strikes me as business as usual in a world with software patents. Given my druthers, we wouldn't have software patents period and, IBM, really, would it kill you to work with TurboHercules? I see their efforts as being more complementary than competitive to your mainframe business. No, what really bothers me is how this has turned into an ugly mud-slinging mess with IBM as the target.

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