There’s a rumour circulating that Ubuntu is in discussions with Microsoft aimed at an agreement along the lines they have concluded recently with Linspire, Xandros, Novell etc. Unfortunately, some speculation in the media (thoroughly and elegantly debunked in the blogosphere but not before the damage was done) posited that “Ubuntu might be next”.
For the record, let me state my position, and I think this is also roughly the position of Canonical and the Ubuntu Community Council though I haven’t caucused with the CC on this specifically.
We have declined to discuss any agreement with Microsoft under the threat of unspecified patent infringements.
Allegations of “infringement of unspecified patents” carry no weight whatsoever. We don’t think they have any legal merit, and they are no incentive for us to work with Microsoft on any of the wonderful things we could do together. A promise by Microsoft not to sue for infringement of unspecified patents has no value at all and is not worth paying for. It does not protect users from the real risk of a patent suit from a pure-IP-holder (Microsoft itself is regularly found to violate such patents and regularly settles such suits). People who pay protection money for that promise are likely living in a false sense of security.
I welcome Microsoft’s stated commitment to interoperability between Linux and the Windows world – and believe Ubuntu will benefit fully from any investment made in that regard by Microsoft and its new partners, as that code will no doubt be free software and will no doubt be included in Ubuntu.
With regard to open standards on document formats, I have no confidence in Microsoft’s OpenXML specification to deliver a vibrant, competitive and healthy market of multiple implementations. I don’t believe that the specifications are good enough, nor that Microsoft will hold itself to the specification when it does not suit the company to do so. There is currently one implementation of the specification, and as far as I’m aware, Microsoft hasn’t even certified that their own Office12 completely implements OpenXML, or that OpenXML completely defines Office12’s behavior. The Open Document Format (ODF) specification is a much better, much cleaner and widely implemented specification that is already a global standard. I would invite Microsoft to participate in the OASIS Open Document Format working group, and to ensure that the existing import and export filters for Office12 to Open Document Format are improved and available as a standard option. Microsoft is already, I think, a member of OASIS. This would be a far more constructive open standard approach than OpenXML, which is merely a vague codification of current practice by one vendor.
In the past, we have surprised people with announcements of collaboration with companies like Sun, that have at one time or another been hostile to free software. I do believe that companies change their position, as they get new leadership and new management. And we should engage with companies that are committed to the values we hold dear, and disengage if they change their position again. While Sun has yet to fully deliver on its commitments to free software licensing for Java, I believe that commitment is still in place at the top.
I have no objections to working with Microsoft in ways that further the cause of free software, and I don’t rule out any collaboration with them, in the event that they adopt a position of constructive engagement with the free software community. It’s not useful to characterize any company as “intrinsically evil for all time”. But I don’t believe that the intent of the current round of agreements is supportive of free software, and in fact I don’t think it’s particularly in Microsoft’s interests to pursue this agenda either. In time, perhaps, they will come to see things that way too.
My goal is to carry free software forward as far as I can, and then to help others take the baton to carry it further. At Canonical, we believe that we can be successful and also make a huge contribution to that goal. In the Ubuntu community, we believe that the freedom in free software is what’s powerful, not the openness of the code. Our role is not to be the ideologues -in-chief of the movement, our role is to deliver the benefits of that freedom to the widest possible audience. We recognize the value in “good now to get perfect later” (today we require free apps, tomorrow free drivers too, and someday free firmware to be part of the default Ubuntu configuration) we always act in support of the goals of the free software community as we perceive them. All the deals announced so far strike me as “trinkets in exchange for air kisses”. Mua mua. No thanks.