The excitement continues

There's never a dull moment in the software industry, it seems. And as you'd expect of the world's biggest software company, Microsoft is in the thick of most of it.

There’s never a dull moment in the software industry, it seems. And as you’d expect of the world’s biggest software company, Microsoft is in the thick of most of it.

Two stories surfaced last week featuring Microsoft in roles tailormade for conspiracy theorists. A third story lacked a Microsoft connection, which is just as well, otherwise the old Redmond-bashing bogey would have been levelled at me. But it was the match of the others in head-shaking wonderment power.

Let’s start with the Microsoft pair. The first was broken by the International Herald Tribune, and concerned the creation of a fund at Microsoft which could be drawn from to help dissuade big customers like governments from slipping into the open source embrace.

The second story was completely unrelated -- unless, of course, you don’t believe the press release -- and was about Microsoft licensing SCO’s Unix operating system. If you don’t happen to believe the press release, you might read all sorts of sinister motivations into the SCO story, considering the ruckus SCO is stirring up in the Linux community (see The Source).

The press release, though, merely says Microsoft is licensing SCO Unix source code and patents so that it is in compliance with IP requirements. This relates to Microsoft’s Windows Services for Unix, a set of components that bridge the gap between Windows-based and Unix-based systems in the same network.

To the suggestion that it’s a reward for SCO’s Linux legal argy bargy, SCO’s Unix intellectual property guardian, Chris Sontag, says not at all -- it’s a "standard, straight-up Unix licensing agreement like many we've done in the past". He has support from IDC for that assertion, US analyst Dan Kusnetzky saying that any attempt to advance a conspiracy theory to explain the timing of the deal would be hard to prove.

Those theorists would find ammunition in the fact that a decade ago Microsoft was a part-owner of SCO. SCO -- the letters stand for Santa Cruz Operation -- traces its origins back to 1979. A few years later it was selling a version of Unix, Xenix, for PCs. It has stuck solidly to its mission of putting Unix on PCs since then, even working with IBM on a high-volume version of the OS for 32-bit and 64-bit Intel processors in the late 1990s (IBM is the target of today’s litigation).

But ownership of the company -- and its IP -- has changed a number of times since its formation. In 1993 Microsoft owned 12% of the company, but most recently its products were bought by Linux distributor Caldera. Only last week Caldera shareholders gave their nod to revival of the SCO name. It seems unlikely that Microsoft would continue to have a financial stake in the company, but we all know it has some interest in derailing the Linux train.

A reminder of that came in the International Herald Tribune story. It relied on email messages, one sent by Microsoft exec Orlando Ayala (who used to have responsibility for sales in this part of the world). Ayala’s message, sent last US summer, talked about offering discounts to "very low-income countries" that might be wavering in their commitment to Microsoft software. Is that us? According to our OECD ranking, it might almost be.

What timing. The State Service Commission’s e-government unit head, Brendan Boyle, was in Redmond last week getting the low-down on what Microsoft can offer governments. And negotiations on our government’s licensing deal with Microsoft are expected to be wrapped up after a meeting this week. Let’s hope Boyle’s been reading the Herald Tribune and got his hand up in time for one of those special deals.

Enough about Microsoft. Oracle -- and its PR lackeys -- provide almost as much excitement. Its PR firm made a pre-emptive strike last week, warning us of a forthcoming Gartner report that would purport to show Oracle lagging IBM in the database stakes (for the second year running). We should not heed it, we were told, because it relied on an "unvalidated" IBM figure. Much more reliable, they went on, was an IDC report putting Oracle in the lead, and a Morgan Stanley survey of US CIOs showing Oracle9i is the more popular "strategic database of choice" than DB2 on Unix -- 56%, versus 3%. All we can do is remind ourselves of the adage -- lies, damned lies and statistics.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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