Now whether you believe the patent claims from Microsoft (or whether the number is accurate) or not, they clearly are having an impact on the market. But I'm not sure it is the impact that Microsoft intended. Let's take a minute to look at the situation and the mistake that Microsoft may have made, why it made it, and whether, short term, Red Hat or Novell will best benefit. This is a follow up to my earlier piece on covering your butt.
First, one thing now appears clear, and that is Microsoft really doesn't want to litigate. The cause probably goes to how much litigation it has been involved in to date and that the overall experience isn't a great deal of fun, or at least hasn't been. Even Sun is warning Microsoft not to enforce.
Pre-SCO, if Microsoft or any large software vendor made a claim that another company was infringing, it could have a chilling impact on sales. IBM often used its own patent portfolio very effectively and it, along with HP, has recently been much more aggressive with its own patent portfolios of late. At least with hardware, it still seems to work. But SCO made a lot of claims which are now perceived to have been baseless (whether or not they are, or were, isn't important -- it's perception that counts). The end result is that folks in the software business, and the Linux foundation in particular, don't take this stuff that seriously anymore.
Now large corporations, at least those who probably are already under a Microsoft license of some type, have to take this kind of thing seriously because being in violation of license has near-immediate financial implications with regard to what Microsoft charges them. But they are more likely to ask for proof of the infringement, and here Microsoft is already using Stallman's own comments with regard to infringing code along with the patents under NDA as proof (suggesting they may actually work).
For company to company fights, it is one firm against the other and the user/buyer of the technology is generally, at least somewhat, impartial. With OSS, the user takes the place of the challenged company and is anything but impartial. That adds a unique political aspect in the Post-SCO world that I don't think a lot of folks, including Microsoft, fully get. This would suggest that a much more subtle approach would be vastly more effective. But Microsoft doesn't do subtle well; the Fortune piece where they were trying to make, but clearly didn't, a subtle point is proof of that.
So the Microsoft statement showcases pre-SCO thinking, and while it is likely somewhat successful with IT, it also likely has unintended consequences which are counter strategic to Microsoft.
The product that is likely the most vulnerable is OpenOffice. While it is likely that many of the operating system patents cannot be enforced -- probably because they haven't been adequately protected or because the patented idea is in common use with a number of operating systems -- productivity software has largely been contained by Microsoft and Corel (which is cross-licensed). The end result is that the same defenses that work with Linux may not work with OpenOffice, and since Linux and OpenOffice go together on the desktop, Microsoft's claims may have an impact here. This may be why Sun is trying to warn Microsoft off (given it is/was the force behind OpenOffice).
On Linux in general, however, the initial impact shouldn't be that great, and Microsoft's actions did result in massive media coverage which allows folks to present Linux in a favorable light. I would argue Linux, as a class of product, may actually be benefiting from positive market coverage. How much is hard to tell, but Linux doesn't have a marketing department and seems often to benefit more from claims like this than be hurt by them.
Any time advocates for a product are given the podium, assuming they don't say stupid things, that's free publicity, and Microsoft gives more of this to Linux than Linux gets from any of its supporting companies, including IBM. This has to be frustrating to Microsoft -- it must seem like the harder it pushes, the further it falls behind.
Given most are focusing on Linux and not Open Office, I believe the impact (at least initially) of Microsoft's claims are positive for Linux. Long-term, it will depend on the strength of Microsoft's patents which could, in fact, be enforceable. (Just because you believe something, one way or another, doesn't mean it is true). For now, since the assumption is they are not, this is simply working to make Linux more visible, and viable, as a Microsoft alternative. I doubt that is Microsoft's goal.
Who Benefits: Novell or Red Hat?
Both may, but in different ways. For Novell, it is once again affirmed as the safe vendor, regardless of whether the patents are real or not. A Novell customer can affectively step away from the entire mess (as can an HP customer) and focus on the business. This is appealing to business buyers who would rather focus on their business and not on any controversy, and particularly for mixed Microsoft/Novell sites who don't want to worry about what Microsoft may do next to enforce its rights.
Red Hat has historically been poorly regarded by the OSS community and this does a lot to turn it from marginal villain to outright hero. You can't buy this kind of positive press, and even if Microsoft does take Red Hat to court, that would only make them more attractive to OSS supporters who might now flock to their defense.
This should positively impact any small business or consumer business Red Hat does, but it could also place a cloud over its corporate business and make it less likely that Dell or HP would use it. Neither company wants to enter this fight. IBM is a wild card (it may be motivated to do something similar to what Oracle did and create its own distribution that can be defended under ist own Microsoft cross-license agreement) and what it does could have a material impact on how all of this turns out.
In the end I think Red Hat benefits more because it moves from bad guy to good guy for the Open Source community, which gets a big vote on what products are chosen and used. This will be a halo that could serve them in good stead for anything from acquiring customers to acquiring employees.
Closing Thoughts on Microsoft
At the heart of the Open Source movement is dissatisfaction with and distrust of Microsoft. That fuels much of the fire, and until that is addressed, the risk to Microsoft is likely to increase and its ability to get people to license decrease. This recent coverage isn't helping Microsoft at all. At some point, Microsoft will have to improve its reputation as it defends its IP rights.
They are clearly going to extensive lengths to avoid litigation, but are also moving aggressively to license and assume the folks signing are convinced the Microsoft patents have some validity or they wouldn't sign (the Samsung deal, for instance, would indicate at least some Microsoft patents are valid).
Long-term, the outcome depends on what Microsoft actually does to protect its patents. Some will not sign licenses and, at some point, Microsoft will either have to walk away from these patents or protect them through litigation. When, and if, litigation happens will be sometime in the future.
Red Hat continues to appear the most likely to be hit first, which, eventually, should benefit Novell. But right now, Red Hat seems to be getting most of the visible benefits. I'm guessing Novell is not pleased.