OpenSuse's uncertain future

Novell has finally been sold. Is this the end for OpenSuse?

November 24, 2010
OpenSuse's uncertain future

It’s been a while in the coming but now Novell is finally being sold off. The company is to be bought by Attachmate for US$2.2 billion.

For many the move is unsurprising: Novell has been on the back foot for some time now and its flirtation with Linux served only to delay its final end.

Once a company at the centre of the networking world, Novell has gradually lost influence and struggled to evolve into the company it needed to be.

The deal with Attachmate does also affect the open source world. A number of years ago Novell bought Suse Linux as part of its revival strategy. This it rebranded as Suse Enterprise Linux and offered to the corporate market as a Microsoft alternative. Equally importantly Novell created OpenSuse, a community-driven version of Suse Linux which is freely available for download.

Now that Novell is being sold there are many in the OpenSuse community that worry that the community edition may lose much of its backing. It wouldn’t be the first time an acquisition hit open source hard. Oracle’s purchase of Sun Microsystems is the most recent example which has seen significant upheaval in the OpenOffice.org project, resulting in a brand new open source version being created, called LibreOffice, for fear that Oracle would close down OpenOffice. OpenSolaris also suffered as Oracle largely cut it off.

The deal between Attachmate and Novell is still brand new so most OpenSuse members have little idea how the deal will affect the future of the project. OpenSUSE community member Pascal Bleser wrote on his blog this week that things were still very unclear for the OpenSuse board.

For its part Attachmate said in a brief statement that it planned on retaining Suse Linux as a “stand-alone business unit after the transaction closes.” It also said that it foresees “no change to the relationship between the Suse business and the openSuse project.”

While this might soothe fears of a sudden demise of OpenSuse in the coming months, there are also some fears that the deal will have far-reaching patent ramifications.

Novell already has a controversial 2007 patent agreement with Microsoft and now, as part of the sale of Novell, Attachmate has agreed to sell a raft of Novell’s patents to CPTN Holdings, a Microsoft-backed consortium, for $450m. There could be as many as 882 software patents included in the deal with Microsoft, although for now there is no indication of which patents these will be.

Naturally the open source community is uneasy about this with some commentators suggesting that it may re-ignite the patent wars between Microsoft and the open source community.

OpenSuse’s Bleser warned that this could be the case: “Our hope is that this does not add to the minefield that software patents are today for free and open source software developers. The OpenSuse Board generally believes, like the rest of the global FOSS community, that software patents impede innovation and are inconsistent with open source and free software.”

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