Microsoft is targeting Sun Microsystems for patent violations in its open-source software, claiming OpenOffice.org breaches 45 of its patents. Sun wasted no time in responding to the claims coming out of Redmond.

"You would be wise to listen to the customers you're threatening to sue -- they can leave you, especially if you give them motivation," Sun's President and CEO Jonathan Schwartz wrote in his blog. "Remember, they wouldn't be motivated unless your products were somehow missing the mark." The open-source community, he added, is vastly more innovative and powerful than a single company.

Could the intent of Redmond's callout be to broker licensing deals with free software developers? Or is the software giant bound to sue any infringing party it can find with deep enough pockets to make a court battle worth its while? Few analysts believe that Microsoft actually will file suit, but the company doesn't seem to be planning to let alleged infringers have a free ride, either.

Forced Alliances

Microsoft's decision to call out open source on patent violations is not about stifling innovation or slowing the adoption of Linux or open-source software in general, according to Brad Shimmin, a principal analyst at Current Analysis. For Microsoft, he said, this is about deriving long-term revenue from a burgeoning market in which it cannot play.

"What Microsoft intends here is for these vendors to enter into patent-licensing deals just as Novell did last year, thereby avoiding potentially costly litigation -- either directly from Microsoft or indirectly with Microsoft taking aim at their customers, a la the Recording Industry Association of America," Shimmin argued.

Shimmin is referring to an alliance Microsoft and Novell struck last November. On the basis of that deal, Novell would be immune to any suits Microsoft might file against open-source software vendors or the companies that use that software. Sun might be the next tech giant to ink a deal with Microsoft.

Linux Foundation Responds

The Linux Foundation isn't too concerned about lawsuits. Microsoft is too smart to take a page out of the SCO handbook and sue its own business Relevant Products/Services partners and customers, said Amanda McPherson, the foundation's marketing director. She then posed a question of her own: Is Microsoft certain it has not infringed upon the patents of the companies that represent the entire open-source ecosystem?

"Microsoft will need to be careful what it starts, given that it cannot know where this will end. I think most knowledgeable software users see this posturing for what it is: empty threats from a scared giant whose monopoly is being challenged," McPherson wrote in the foundation's blog, alleging further that Microsoft has a monopoly on operating systems and productivity software.

The marketing director called Microsoft's allegations a well-funded and well-run FUD campaign (a marketing strategy that aims to created Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). A patent war, she continued, guarantees only one sure outcome: mutually assured destruction for all involved. "I urge everyone to see this for what it is: a FUD campaign," she concluded. "Don't let Microsoft or anyone else get away with it."