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In a surprise announcement, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer seems to be doing a deal with Novell and the SUSE Linux folks. Apparently, the goal is to make Linux interoperable with Windows and perhaps move some apps onto the Linux platform. What could be brewing? Does it make any sense that Microsoft is going to embrace Linux in a big way? After all, Ballmer used to demean it.

I think something is up, and it was probably triggered by Larry Ellison's announcement at the recent Oracle OpenWorld event that his company would sell support services for Red Hat Linux. I suspect that the big enterprise players are each going to jump on one of the various Linux boats and start a software war.

The fact is, Microsoft is way overdue in this effort. What has the company been waiting for? It's been waiting for the final legal ramifications of "shims," that's what.

Microsoft has been leery of doing too much with Linux because of all the weirdness with the licenses and the possibility that one false move would make a Microsoft product public domain at worst, or subject to the GPL at best. As far as old-school software companies are concerned, the GPL-the GNU General Public License-is a ridiculous pain to deal with, especially if you have a unique invention that you want to bring to the party-and want to make money doing so.

Sharp operators have been playing with various ways to avoid bumping into the GPL while using Linux in proprietary applications. Thus evolved the concept of a shim. Anyone who has done anything mechanical is familiar with the shim. It's usually something that is jammed into a space to shore it up or make something less loose, such as a matchbook jammed under a table leg to keep the table from wobbling.

With software, the idea is to create some sort of code that is jammed into Linux and whose sole purpose is to let some proprietary code run under Linux without actually "touching" Linux in any way that would subject the proprietary code to the GPL. This would include mechanisms that alter the internals of Linux without having to publish the code and changes as open-source or allow them to be used by others, as is required by the GPL.

Everyone in the business has been trying to cheat the Linux GPL for years, and this shim idea seems to have the earmarks of something that might work. Microsoft knows this, Oracle knows this, everyone knows this.

With a shim, Microsoft could possibly do the following: Take a Linux distro, say SUSE; then create a shim that talks to the SUSE kernel. Publish the source code of the shim and what it does. Then take a proprietary Microsoft optimizer that lets various apps run on Linux perfectly with modifications to the Linux core-but that actually runs on the shim, not Linux. The modifications to Linux would be done by the shim at the behest of the Microsoft apps in such a way that the mechanism would not have to be revealed as open-source. I know it sounds a little complicated to create middleware for the sole purpose of code-scrambling on the fly. But suffice it to say that the plan is something like what I've described.



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