Bang the TomTom Softly

Has Chancellor Palpatine given the go ahead to execute Order 66 or is the TomTom lawsuit about nothing more than GPS?

Let’s just cut to the chase, I don’t really think that Microsoft’s lawsuit against TomTom is the initial salvo in a patent war against Linux. Why? Two reasons: Who they’re going after and the economy.

First some background: Last week Microsoft filed patent infringement claims against TomTom. While the bulk of the suit concerns GPS patents, two of the claims are related to a Linux implementation of the Microsft FAT32 filesystem related to things like the “common name space for long and short filenames.” The concern being that Microsoft is laying the groundwork for an all-out assault on Linux by demonstrating that essential parts of the Linux foundation (filesystem implementation) infringe on Microsoft patents.

I’m not sure if this tactic will stand up in a court of law nor will we be finding out anytime soon. Why? Because TomTom doesn’t have the money to fight MS.

In the last quarter TomTom posted a EUR989 million loss. That’s 1.2 billion dollars in US currency; enough to concern just about any company not on the Federal government’s bailout list. This is a company that makes GPS systems that talk to you with Yoda’s voice and who’s biggest customers are car companies, which, if you haven’t heard, aren’t doing all that well. Hardly the type of company that you would target in order to wage a worldwide war against open source. This case will never see a courtroom.

I suspect that if Microsoft was going to attempt to shut Linux down, they would assemble their alleged 200+ patents that Linux infringes upon and go after the biggest fish they could so that, if they won (before solutions could pull them up short), they’d have won a decisive victory.

The FAT patents may be bulletproof but MS is not testing the strength of the GPL by going after TomTom. I suspect that the aim here is to secure GPS licensing from the company or, barring that, shut them down so MS technology can step in.

In addition to this, the timing for a war with Linux is all wrong. I’m supposed to believe Microsoft has decided — in the worst economy practically any of us has ever seen — to drop the patent hammer on Linux thereby creating doubt about nearly all technology purchases?

This is really the biggest problem with all this. Businesses are already rattled and unwilling to spend money due to the economic downturn. By starting a patent war with all things Linux, it’s not that everyone would suddenly dump Linux and run to Windows. Rather they would go into further wait-and-see mode because a patent war with Linux would take a long, long time to hash out — a rigorous attack on the GPL would take years and a successful outcome is by no means assured. And Microsoft (like it’s Linux counterparts) can ill-afford to spook any potential customers in the meantime.

I think it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and a step back for a minute. We’re well over two years into an agreement with Novell (See My Enemy, My Partner: The Microsoft-Novell Alliance) that was, everyone assumed at the time, supposed to serve as the basis for a massive patent war. And the result of all that hand-wringing? A collective yawn (See Whither the SUSE Exodus? Novell’s Linux Business Soars) followed by, well, nothing.

If you think you need to remain vigilant (whatever that means), OK, you go right ahead and do that. Me? I’m a little tired of the all the theater and I’m going to need to see some blood drawn from that Sword of Damocles before I get excited about any of this.

Comments on "Bang the TomTom Softly"


Interesting analysis, but… You are assuming that Microsoft hopes spooked users won’t go into wait-and-see mode. What if they are assuming that fence-sitting customers will slack off on Linux deployments and go more with Windows Server? What if they are assuming that an attack on a GPS manufacturer will go mostly unnoticed by IT departments?

More to the point, what if MS assumes the Windows faithful won’t care, and MS doesn’t care about open source user’s market perceptions at all? They may be building a portfolio of Linux patent right license partners until everyone but IBM, Ubuntu and Red Hat have licensed the right to use MS patents in Linux. By targeting hardware manufacturers first, starting with appliances and working their way through servers and then desktops, when the big fight begins, the software service vendors and Linux distro makers will find no one else on their side. They will all be paying license money to the MS legal department, funding the MS side.


These patents (as are all software/business method patents) are a sham. The Linux community should support Tom Tom in principle on this point alone. Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Would fighting this cause a lull in technological purchasing – maybe, that would might be helpful in getting this case heard in an expedited manner. Its about time. Let’s do it and get it over with.


I must disagree with you Bryan. Microsoft stock is taking a beating, it’s products lack innovation, users are frustrated with Windows and Ballmer seems to be a knuckle dragging apeman of a CEO.
The Open Source community is large, well established and it’s enthusiasts tend to be well paid IT geeks. An all out holy war with Open Source would rouse the base of believers to contribute money for it’s defense. Open source players like IBM and Red Hat (and to a lesser extent SUN, and Novel) would have a vested interest in joining the conflict. Public opinion would work against Microsoft as the masses often feel empathy for the little guy. We might even see a resurrection of the Microsoft anti-trust hearings.
I expect that not even Steve Ballmer believes the 235 patent infringements claim. Microsoft does not need the claim to be factually accurate to accomplish their goals (as a good lie will do just fine). Microsoft has used FUD (Fear Uncertainty Doubt) with lethal effects before and by targeting a little known, financially strapped, half cousin (twice removed) Microsoft may hope to avoid a full scale war with Open Source (a long protracted battle). Picking off the big guys is not necessary if you can established enough of a legal precedent to scare away existing or potential Open Source customers. If the customers are not buying, then Open Source companies go bankrupt (they win).


I agree with your conclusion, but not your argument :-)

If MS were going after Linux, it would pick a couple of slam-dunk cases to establish precedent and build momentum. Those cases would also allow MS to tell its’ side of the story before Open Source advocates were even noticed by the press. An opponent like TomTom is precisely the sort they’d pick. A quick settlement would “prove” their patents are valid, and encourage other companies in a similar situation to settle. Microsoft is not going after IBM, Intel, HP or Dell for alleged Linux infringement – they’ve probably already got patent sharing agreements in place, and they certainly have lawyers who know how to fight this battle, backed by lots of patents MS needs access to.

I don’t think this is the opening salvo because I believe it’s not the way MS will (is?) fighting Linux. They need to stay off the radar as long as possible, so as not to invite grumbling from partners or scrutiny from the EU. Instead, look for more background deals (like offering XP for $15-30 on crippled netbooks) that starve alternatives.


> If MS were going after Linux, it would pick a couple of slam-dunk cases to establish precedent and build momentum.

You might be right. I went back and forth for awhile on how I would approach a patent fight with Linux if I were MS. Eventually I decided to go with the “Normandy Invasion” strategy since you’d show your hand is you fought little fights, getting consensus from key patents by the courts or settlements.

MS lives in a fishbowl and anything they do gives the FOSS community cause and time to erect a defense. So it may need to be all or nothing.

In any case, I think it’s all a lot of straw men. Invalidating Linux at this point is like invalidating air. MS might try it (probably not) but they won’t win.



MS lives in a fishbowl and anything they do gives the FOSS community cause and time to erect a defense. So it may need to be all or nothing.

The FOSS community (and everyone else) doesn’t see the quiet negotiations going on between Microsoft and the many hardward manufacturers, leaning on them to license patented Linux technology from Microsoft. This is one of the few times this strategy has bubbled up to the surface, as a necessary warning to the other h/w manufacturers to fall in line.

It is only after MS has gone after all the major hardware players will we see the enormity of what is going on. Want to use Linux in your product? You are free to develop it, but once you go to sell it, you have to pay MS for a license to do so.


Whenever MS is in an innovation bind (as in, they need something they have not been able to produce in-house in order to create “product”) they buy a company. Front Page, anyone? Visio?

Whenever MS wants to remind the little guys that licensing their technologies is an important thing, they typically file a FUD-suite against some company.

What I see in this current situation is a serendipitous meeting of both of those items…make a point _and_ buy a company at fire sale pricing. Nothing more, nothing less.


That should read, “FUD-suit”


TOM TOM could always drop the use of the Fat file system and use an open source file system like ext3.


I for one would donate to the Linux cause if they took Microsoft on. this thing about patents needs sorting out once and for all. I would say that the community would also donate a few bucks each and with the number of users world wide there would be enough capital raised to fight the good fight that needs to be fought

I think if Tom Tom came to the community they would get donations to fight big bully Microsoft with no problems


I expect this may have more to do with scaring small manufacturers that go with embedded Linux rather than Windows CE and not an attack on mainstream Linux. I see a lot of firms using Linux in their products now.

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