Opinion: SCO-Microsoft conspiracy theory

The SCO Group vs. IBM lawsuit gives off a subtle, unpleasant odor I couldn't quite place. When SCO set its sights on Linux distributors and even Linux itself, the source of the stench became unmistakable -- Redmond. It was too early to make an accusation when the suit was filed since any such claim lacking even circumstantial evidence would be nothing more than a conspiracy rant.

Nevertheless, a few of us on VarLinux.org discussed the possibility that this was all about destroying Linux, and pondered a Microsoft involvement. A motive is clear. Microsoft perceives Linux as a great threat, and is therefore pulling out all the stops in its war against Linux. I offered the opinion that, if Microsoft has a hand in this at all, it would probably show up as a seemingly unrelated deal.

Sure enough, within days, SCO announced that Microsoft licensed Unix for an undisclosed amount of money, and that SCO now supports Microsoft Active Directory. There was the smoking gun.

It was an easy prediction. Microsoft has a consistent MO for exploiting the opportunities in struggling or dying competition. Microsoft propped up Apple with a hefty cash infusion, and in return Apple adopted Internet Explorer and endorsed ActiveX. Microsoft propped up Corel with a hefty cash investment, and in return Corel lost interest in Linux and announced support for .Net. (Incidentally, has Corel actually done anything with .Net since that announcement, or was it purely a PR payoff?)

Is this a case of Microsoft propping up a rapidly fading SCO in return for an endorsement of Active Directory and a publicity campaign to damage Linux? It is certainly possible, but there are two problems with that theory. First, Microsoft is not content to damage Linux. It wants to destroy Linux. Second, the folks at SCO must realize that a hefty sum of cash will eventually run out, and SCO will be back at death's door without a compelling product.

Perhaps SCO is hoping to use the cash to survive a "pesky gnat" campaign designed to irritate IBM and Linux customers until someone like IBM purchases SCO. While that explains why SCO might be interested, it doesn't explain the Microsoft side of the connection. I do not doubt that SCO hopes to be bought by IBM or some other company, but I suspect a buyout is at most an "if all else fails" exit strategy.

I believe I can offer a more compelling conspiracy theory based on another typical Microsoft MO, as depicted in this excerpt from the testimony of Netcape's Jim Barksdale in the US DOJ vs. Microsoft antitrust trial.

...Microsoft apparently came to Netscape with a single focus: to convince Netscape not to compete with its Windows 95 browser product, Internet Explorer. Microsoft proposed a division of the browser market between our companies: if Netscape would agree not to produce a Windows 95 browser that would compete with Internet Explorer, Microsoft would "allow" Netscape to produce cross-platform versions of its browser for the relatively small market of non-Windows 95 platforms: namely Windows 3.1, Macintosh, and Unix. Moreover, Microsoft made clear that if Netscape did not agree to its plan to divide the browser market, Microsoft would crush Netscape, using its operating system monopoly, by freely incorporating all of the functionality of Netscape's products into Windows.

(Microsoft also proposed) ...the possibility that Netscape would adopt certain Microsoft technologies and that Microsoft would adopt certain Netscape technologies, the possibility of Netscape becoming what Microsoft called a "preferred" solutions provider, and the possibility of Microsoft taking an equity position in Netscape. (...) I asked Dan Rosen if Netscape's ability to obtain necessary technical specifications was conditioned on agreeing to Microsoft's proposal to divide the market and take an equity position in Netscape. He said that "It certainly isn't independent."

Conspiracy theory

Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to read is speculation. Only the names have been changed to pretend they're innocent. Date: circa 2002. Place: Executive conference room, SCO, Lindon, Utah. Attendees: Three Microsoft executives, Mr. Dewey, Mr. Cheetum and Ms. Howe. Two SCO executives, Mr. Desperation and Ms. Greed.

Dewey: "How's the Linux business going?"

Desperation: "Terrific. We're planning to migrate much of our SCO installed base over to Linux."

Cheetum: "And you are going to make money doing that, how? Last I looked, SCO Unix had a higher profit margin than your Linux, which doesn't seem to be doing very well at all."

Greed: "Well, we have a few ideas in the works."

Howe: "Let's not beat around the bush, shall we? Your Linux business is slower than our Windows release schedule. You're losing money hand over fist. You have stockholders to worry about. You finally realized that the only company that can afford to dedicate a staff to maintain a core Linux distribution is Red Hat. You can't compete with that. You end up spending all your time duplicating the effort to build and maintain a base system rather than the unique added value you needed to sell your flavor Linux. As a stop-gap solution, you got together with a few other non-Red Hat distributions and launched the United Linux consortium. That let you get rid of a bunch of redundant developers under the guise of addressing compatibility issues. But you know as well as we do that your chances of competing with Red Hat are zip, zilch, nada. You got nothing."

Desperation: "So if we're hopeless and no threat to you, then why are you here?"

Dewey: "We're here to propose a plan that could benefit both of us."

Greed: (sarcastically) "I'll bet."

Cheetum: "You think we're the enemy? That's your mistake. Linux is the enemy. Think of what it was like before Linux came along. SCO was the only credible Unix solution on Intel, so like us, you had no competition. You went to work in beautiful Santa Cruz, California. You wrote a few lines of code, collected some license fees, took the phone off the hook and spent the rest of the day at the beach. Sure, you weren't rich, but you made a living and life was easy. Now what do you have to look forward to? Lunch with Ray Noorda, angry investors and maybe a chance to bump into Donny Osmond?"

Desperation: "It's not that bad..."

Howe: (leans back, pauses a moment, then breaks into a sadistic grin) "Get real."

Greed: "Okay, so it hasn't been a rosy experience. So what's it to you?"

Dewey: "Look. You hate Linux. We hate Linux. You hate open source. We hate open source. You can't compete with Linux. We can't compete against Linux. I think we have some common ground to work with. So, tell me. How would you like a chance to stomp Linux into the ground and a chance to retire, all in one stroke?"

Desperation: "Keep talking."

Cheetum: "We think we've come up with a win-win scenario. Here's what you need to do. You will stage an attack on Linux based on the allegation that Linux has illegally incorporated proprietary SCO Unix intellectual property. In return, we will license Unix and a few of your patents for, say..." (turns to Howe) "How much do you think it will cost to litigate this sort of thing?"

Howe: "No idea. Let's just use a hypothetical of $100 million."

Cheetum: "Okay, $100 million. So we will license Unix, a few technologies and patents. You'll also agree to incorporate some of our technologies, such as Active Directory, into Unix, and we'll pay for the development support. We'll fund this for, say, $100 million — plus another $500 million."

Dewey: "Of course, this deal also qualifies you three individuals for our preferred partner Christmas bonus plan, the benefits of which we send directly to your home address if you agree to all the conditions."

Greed: "I don't know. First of all, Linux has enough momentum to threaten even you. We're a Linux company, so why should we give up the one thing even you consider to be a threat?"

Cheetum: "Yeah, Linux is competition. But you're nobody. But think of what SCO could be if Linux and open source goes away."

Howe: "Put it this way. Everything is going to be Intel sooner or later. When it all shakes out, there will be two operating systems left standing on Intel — Windows and some flavor of Unix. If that flavor of Unix is Linux, then we both lose. We can't undersell Linux, and you can't compete against Red Hat. We're dead and you're dead."

Dewey: (interrupts) "...but if it becomes a legal liability to run Linux, then there's only one credible Unix flavor left on Intel, right? And you charge a lot more for that Unix than you can for Linux, right? So you don't need to wipe out Windows in order to go back to a comfortable living standard. You just have to get back to where SCO used to be."

Greed: "So what you're talking about is splitting the market."

Dewey: "Correction. What we're talking about is SHARING the market."

Greed: "Yeah, sharing." (thinks a moment) "Let's say, hypothetically speaking, of course, that we're interested. This whole scheme seems pretty obvious, and if anyone uncovers it we'll all be in deep (expletive)."

Howe: "We've already considered that. Here's how you will pull it off. First, you hire the one lawyer who is least likely to be associated with us. The one who nearly trounced us in the antitrust suit — David Boies."

Desperation: "Very clever."

Dewey: "It gets better. The first thing you do is sue IBM for spoiling your SCO business by stealing SCO IP and putting it in Linux. This accomplishes two things. First, it damages the credibility of Linux and the leading and most reliable Linux advocate, IBM. Second, it provides you with a back-up plan if all else fails. IBM is sure to buy SCO rather than risk the publicity of a drawn out anti-Linux lawsuit."

Cheetum: "Meanwhile, we launch our side of the attack, which is to undercut every Linux deal, even if we have to give away our products for free. This will hurt in the short term, but if this one-two punch eliminates Linux, we can charge whatever we want in the long term."

Howe: "Then, little by little, you unroll the attack against Linux distributors and then Linux itself..."

Dum ta dum dum.... And the rest, as they say, is history.

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