|Steve Ballmer, the Sopranos and the protection racket. |
"I need to talk to you Vaughan-Nichols," he said, as two large men in expensive, but badly fitting suits, followed him out.
"Hey, anything the Redmond Mafia wants to say to me, they can call me about. You know the number."
"Listen to me," Ballmer said. "The only reason I'm doing this is because you're well-known. If it were anybody else, they would've gotten this intervention through the back of their head. Capiche?"
I sighed. "OK, speak your piece."
"Why are you making so much trouble about me talking about how open source and Linux owes us money?"
"Because they don't, Tony. Er, I mean, Steve. What you're doing is trying to set up an extortion racket."
"Oh, yeah? Who knows more about extortion, me or you?"
In this case, I think it's me.
Microsoft isn't just spreading FUD—albeit they're doing that as well. The explicit message is that Linux companies owe money to Microsoft because of patent violations. The only problem is that even when Ballmer first started making these claims in 2004, the only authority he has every cited for his claims said Ballmer had gotten it all wrong.
Every time Ballmer makes these increasingly vague claims—this makes the fourth go-around in the last four years by my count—open source and legal experts jump all over him. He ignores them and life continues.
To read more about Ballmer's patent threats against Linux and open source, click here.
Ballmer is sending two other hidden messages though. Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, Ubuntu's corporate Linux backer, pointed them out to me in a recent conversation.
The first is that there's something unsavory about Linux and open source. Ballmer starts his accusations against Linux with the assumption that everyone agrees with him that there's something illegal going on with Linux. He implies, without any proof at all, that the patents, or whatever he's talking about that day, are only the tip of the open-source IP (intellectual property) iceberg.
Never mind that Microsoft refuses to ever give a specific example, or that after years of claims SCO has completely failed to show any evidence that Linux has stolen any copyrighted material from Linux. Ballmer keeps talking as if there's something dirty in Linux's closet.
This connects directly with Ballmer's other unquestioned assumption: that there is no innovation or creation in open source. If you argue with Ballmer on his grounds, you must also assume that open source is just a way of copying the ideas of proprietary developers.
Just look at the name "open" source. It's all there. I can look at it. You can look it. It there's something illegal in the code, I think it'd be pretty easy to point it out, don't you?
As for new ideas, open source is the new idea of the 21st century. After decades of thinking that only way software can be valuable is if it's hidden and proprietary, open source has shown that you can create new things faster and better. It's an idea that's so radical people are still trying to get their heads around the notion that you can make money by giving something away.
Nevertheless, we must continue to challenge Ballmer on both his explicit and implicit attacks on Linux and open source. If we don't, we end up in a situation where his arguments that Linux and open-source software buyers should pay protection, excuse me, buy a Microsoft patent covenant begin to sound like the sensible, prudent thing to do. It's not.
"So, with all due respect Steve, until you're willing to start talking sense, and stop making empty threats, I won't pay. I know too much about extortion."
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