On the TomTom settlement: Microsoft Rolls Back its “Open” Promises

jzemlin's picture

In the last several days Microsoft has shown that despite claims of acquiring a newly found respect for open principles and technology, developers should be cautious in believing promises made by this “new” Microsoft. When it counts, it appears that Microsoft still actively seeks to undermine those technologies or standards that are truly open, especially when those technologies pose a significant threat to their business.

Yesterday, Microsoft announced with a formal press release a settlement of a nuisance patent case filed against a smaller company. Despite Microsoft’s protestations to the contrary, the press release makes it clear that the motivation behind this case was the fear, uncertainty and doubt Microsoft hoped the suit would create around the use of Linux. Linux is, not coincidentally, one of Microsoft’s strongest threats in the server, embedded and desktop computing arenas as evidenced in recent remarks make by its CEO Steve Ballmer.

But the settlement of this suit only proves two things. First, the software patent system in the US needs reform. The need for reform stems from why common functionality like this (which is neither innovative nor novel) was granted a patent in the first place.

Second, it proves that, even apart from this larger issue, this case is a non-event. The technology at the heart of this settlement is the FAT filesystem. As acknowledged by Microsoft in the press release, this file system is easily replaced with multiple technology alternatives. The Linux Foundation is here to assist interested parties in the technical coordination of removing the FAT filesystem from products that make use of it today.

There is another silver lining here. We read the outcome of this case as a testament to the power of a concerted and well-coordinated effort by the Linux industry and organizations such as the Open Invention Network, the SFLC and the Linux Foundation. This was not merely a typical David vs. Goliath story. This time David aligned itself with the multiple slingshots of the Linux community. Microsoft relented as soon as TomTom showed they were aligned with that community and ready to fight. The system is working.

There is one other fact clear from this case. Microsoft does not appear to be a leopard capable of changing its spots. Maybe it’s time developers go on a diet from Microsoft and get the FAT out of their products.