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Microsoft vs. TomTom: Low-Level Hum or Drums of War?

Microsoft vs. TomTom: Low-Level Hum or Drums of War?

Usually, there are topics of discussion galore to choose from in the open source blogosphere, but once Microsoft filed suit against TomTom, it seems you couldn't read about anything else. TomTom faces a patent challenge over its use of the FAT file system in its Linux-based GPS units. Some see the suit as an attack on Linux itself.

By Katherine Noyes LinuxInsider ECT News Network
03/02/09 4:00 AM PT

Those in the Linux community tend to pay fairly close attention to any news relating to Microsoft, but when that news includes a lawsuit involving our favorite operating system, all eyes, ears and keyboards become trained on Redmond.

Yes indeed, traveling across the blogosphere in the past few days since Microsoft announced its suit against TomTom, it was almost difficult to find discussion of anything else.

"Has Microsoft's patent war against Linux begun?" was the title of the Open... post that kicked off the conversation on Slashdot, where more than 600 comments had been made by Friday.

'The Battle Against Linux'

Horacio Gutierrez, the intellectual property lawyer behind the move, was recently promoted to corporate vice president at Microsoft, author Glyn Moody noted: "Could this legal action be his way of announcing the direction he and Microsoft will now take in the battle against Linux?"

Then there was Ryan Paul's Ars Technica piece titled, "Microsoft suit over FAT patents could open OSS Pandora's Box," which got more than 800 Diggs and 200 comments.

At LWN.net, a virtual explosion of comments erupted. "So ... It has finally happened," wrote Cyberax. "I can't remember Microsoft acting as a patent troll before, but now they have crossed even that line. They're just scum."

More practically: "Is there a place to contribute prior art?" stevenj wondered.

'Disappointed in This Sensationalism'

Over at LXer, meanwhile, bloggers decried what they saw as sensationalism in some discussion of the case.

"I as a loyal LX'er RSS feed fan am very disappointed in this sensationalism," wrote Net_Resident. "I don't like FUD no matter who it comes from. Stay on point and stay honest or lose respect."

Indeed, coming hard on the heels of Redmond's recent "patent-free" interoperability agreement with Red Hat -- not to mention recent news that Microsoft's Steve Ballmer is more worried about Linux than about Apple -- it's hard to keep the fears in check.

'Not Linux, Not Open Source'

A note of reassurance did come from the 451 Group, where Jay Lyman wrote a post reminding panicky Linux fans that Microsoft is suing TomTom -- "not Linux, not open source."

All in all, there was certainly no shortage of opinions flying through the blogosphere. To help sort some of it out, we took to the streets for some additional perspective.

"So Microsoft partners with Red Hat and says, 'Look, no patent suits! We LOVE Linux! We are Linux's friend!'" Slashdot blogger yagu exclaimed. "And now, Microsoft sues TomTom, a leader in gps, probably more in spite of Microsoft than because of."

'The de-Microsoft-facto Standard'

TomTom's use of FAT32 for their file system was "almost the only path they could have chosen and have their product work with anything else in the world," yagu told LinuxInsider. "This, courtesy of Microsoft's monopoly-induced standard that is FAT and FAT32. Trust me, the technology world would use almost ANYTHING else rather than FAT32, but we gotta live in the mess that Microsoft created."

Even worse, this could be just the beginning, yagu asserted. "There are so many other devices out there using FAT and FAT32, and for the same reason: It's the de-Microsoft-facto standard."

In fact, Microsoft "fired the first shot" back in 2003, when it demanded that various users license FAT, Slashdot blogger drinkypoo told LinuxInsider.

'I Suspect This Is a Trial Trial'

"The fact that they're going after a Linux-based device first is interesting, however," he added. "If you were trying to establish some sort of precedent under which to attack Linux, you'd have a hard time finding a bigger target."

The question boils down to "whether, after failing to enforce patents or even attempt to collect licensing fees all this time, they can actually claim infringement," drinkypoo added. "I suspect that this is a trial trial; Microsoft probably has bigger fish in mind and wants to see how this lawsuit works out before setting out after larger prey."

Indeed, "Microsoft has always been very aggressive when it comes to its VFAT and FAT32 patents, and TomTom knew this before they used it," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet pointed out.

"Since the USB device driver used since Windows 2000 is device-neutral, they could have just as easily used EXT3 or any other patent-unencumbered file system," he told LinuxInsider. "Instead, they chose one they knew was protected by several patents."

'The Patent System Is Very Broken'

Either way, most of the claims are for software patents that are clearly "invalid," blogger Robert Pogson asserted. "These should be thrown out this year. The others are obvious combinations of known arts and are not patentable.

"I hope TomTom has the resources to stand up to these bullies," Pogson told LinuxInsider.

Even more than any kind of signal about Microsoft or Linux, "this is a sign that the patent system is very broken," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider.

"Think about it: Microsoft buys a clone of one of the dominant operating systems of the time, hacks on Unix directory support; then fast forward a few years and it hacks on long file name support in the ugliest way possible," Mack explained. "How the result is patentable is beyond me. There is nothing innovative about the ugly mess that is VFAT. No one actually likes it, but since that's the only common writable format that all OSes support, we are stuck with it."

'This Will End Shortly'

It's also worth noting that "had the patent system been as strong in the 1980s as it is now, there would be no Microsoft," Mack added. "They would have been sued into oblivion on Dos v1 by Digital Research (owner of CP/M) or AT&T (owner of Unix) for the blatant rip-off of features from their products."

Looking ahead, "this will end pretty shortly, with TomTom signing a patent license with Microsoft," Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean predicted.

"In dropping this first patent bomb, Microsoft has clearly signaled that it is willing to use the FAT patents to prevent competition," Dean told LinuxInsider. "Now it's a real threat to Apple and Sandisk and TomTom, Nokia, Motorola and every other company that uses most flash formatted devices.

'Every Reason to Fear Linux'

One possible course of action?

If TomTom were to make "some strategic moves with Apple, Nokia and several open source vendors, it very well could result in a coordinated shift from FAT to some existing or new format that, rather than being a potential weak point, would be backed by the cascading protection of the Open Innovation Network or some such organization," Dean suggested.

"Microsoft has every reason to fear Linux more than Apple," Mack concluded. "Microsoft has spent most of its life pushing better products out of the market by being cheaper. They know full well how much danger they are in right now."

In the long run, "I don't know if this is just an opening shot across the bow or a random twitch from Microsoft," yagu said. "Regardless, it offers a glimpse of Microsoft's true sentiments."


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