Samba has fighting chance now against Microsoft

BRUSSELS Thu Oct 25, 2007 9:28am EDT

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Microsoft's (MSFT.O) compliance with a landmark European Union antitrust decision has opened competition for servers, where one rival says it now has a fighting chance to take on the software giant's dominance.

The open-source, non-profit Samba software group says it won some things but not everything it wanted this week, when Microsoft said it would stop fighting the EU's 2004 antitrust decision.

In a major change of direction, Microsoft agreed to provide rivals with vital interconnection information, one month after the EU's second-highest court backed the Commission's decision.

But the deal leaves the playing field uneven, Samba says.

"There is still contested ground to win," said Eban Moglen, a Columbia University law professor who also heads the Software Freedom Law Center, which backs the free software movement and represents Samba.

That ground is in most offices around the world in computers called servers which run printers, allow desktop PCs to access shared files and act as the cockpit of the entire network, coordinating resources and providing personalized access, user by user.

Samba servers can handle printing and files access but they lack the ability to work as a cockpit, something that can be done today only by Microsoft's software called Active Directory.

Samba says its own approach is a decade old, which means ancient history in the world of software. Its aim is to provide a free, full-service server software to go head-to-head with Microsoft in the multi-billion dollar market.

To do that, it needs interconnection information.

Then Samba's engineers can develop its products, which dovetail with the commercial world. Companies like Red Hat (RHT.N), Canonical and Oracle ORCL.O and others make money by selling service and installation with Samba's free products.

PIONEER SIDETRACKED

Severs were originally pioneered for PCs by Novell NOVL.O, which got its interconnect information from Microsoft. Once Microsoft entered the server field it stopped giving full information and rival products stopped working smoothly.

Microsoft captured the lion's share of the market, wiping out profits of commercial rivals, the Commission and then the EU court found.

Samba is a non-profit organization so a lack of profits could not kill it, making it the last real competitor standing.

This week's deal allows everyone to get full interconnection information from Microsoft for 10,000 euros ($14,220).

Those who resell products making use of the information can choose to pay a royalty of 0.4 percent of turnover to forestall lawsuits on patents claimed by Microsoft.

But Samba's General Public License and free software principles require it to be free, without royalty-bearing patents, said Carlo Piana, a lawyer for Samba in Milan, Italy.

The first step in that direction is to get a definitive list of Microsoft's patent claims, which has not happened yet.

"Until we have it we cannot say anything because we just don't know," said Volker Lendecke, a software developer for Samba in Goettingen, Germany.

A Microsoft spokesman said on Thursday the list would be posted on the company Website within days. He said 21 of the 106 protocols are covered by patents and other applications are pending.

Even then the path may be uncertain.

"Can we invalidate or render harmless the patents which we which we cannot license?" Moglen said. "It's an open question."

Piana says getting around the patents is necessary.

"Litigating patents would be troublesome," he said.

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