I’ve been asked a couple of times in the past few weeks – and many times over the past few years – how and why IBM enjoys the reputation it does within the open source community. Here’s how I described the paradox of IBM’s embrace of the open source world:
Much to the chagrin of some of its competitors, IBM can seemingly do no wrong with the open source world in general…
 This, despite being absolutely unrepentent about their financial motivations.
There are, of course, a variety of explanations for the love/love relationship IBM has with the members of the open source community. Money, for one: IBM pays employees to contribute to popular projects such as Linux and Mozilla. Support, for another: open source advocates are only too aware of how important the IBM seal is to gaining enterprise adoption for everything from Apache to Linux.
But one aspect of their behavior that has gone relatively unremarked upon is their ability to keep their feet out of their mouth. Think about it: when was the last time you heard an IBMer say something inflammatory with respect to anything even vaguely related to open source? The Solaris fans in the audience are probably looking up from sticking pins in a Dan Frye voodoo doll right about now, and certainly the Geronimo community had their share of concerns about IBM’s sudden involvement, but by and large it’s very rare to hear IBMers say anything that could possibly, as the saying goes, later be used against them. Contrast that with, say, the quotes from Ballmer and Gates years ago that still come up when discussing Microsoft and Shared Source.
Not being quotable can make IBM execs seem relatively boring, of course – and that can occasionally be a problem. But it generally keeps them out of harm’s way when it comes to negative community reactions, in spite of the complete transparency described above with respect to their motivations. Whether this “on message” in PR-speak approach is the result of corporate maturity, media training, some sort of X-Files style implant, or all of the above is a question best left to the reader. But really, the impact can’t be questioned.
Considering all of the above, then, I find the decision to sue Amazon for patent infringement interesting – and potentially very problematic. On the one hand, I can’t say that I’m hugely surprised. IBM heads the patent grant list every year – literally every year, and at the IBM Intellectual Property conference it was clear that this was viewed as a substantial revenue stream for the firm (about a billion a year, from what I recall).
But IBM has also gone out of its way to acknowledge the problems with patents. Problems with the patent review system which many in the industry – including yours truly – feel are fundamentally broken and given to granting overly broad and meaningless patents. Forget the statement (PDF warning) of non-assertion for open source developers (despite the inclusion of some obviously useless patents, the gesture was a good one in my view); more important is the work they’re doing in putting their own patents online, and working with the patent office to try to address some its volume and procedural problems. Or their participation in the Open Innovation Network.
From that work, one could conclude that IBM agrees that there are basic, fundamental flaws in the way the patent system functions in this country. In spite of that, however, IBM apparently sees no issue in attempting to simultaneously profit off of it, as evidenced by the suit. Blame the shareholders, I guess. I’d perhaps be less concerned if the patents seemed on first glance to be really legitimate; highly specialized and clearly the result of unique innovation. But they aren’t, or don’t appear to be anyway; they seem to me to be terrifyingly vague.
For now, I’ll leave the question of whether or not the suits are legitimate and justified to more qualified researchers; those with actual backgrounds in patent law. In the interim, however, I think it’s worth asking the question: what does this do to IBM’s reputation within various technology communities and ecosystems? The answer is, I don’t know yet. It certainly seems to be something that IBM is concerned about, having issued internal memos prepping employees for the suit. In IBM’s favor is Amazon’s own questionable history with respect to patents – this is, after all, the firm that made lots of folks very unhappy with their 1-click patent efforts. One of their founding programmers apparently described those as “a cynical and ungrateful use of an extremely obvious technology.” But even considering the target, I’m wondering whether a variety of technologists will begin questioning the benevolent, avuncular image IBM has labored so long and hard to build. Successfully, I might add.
If that does happen, I’m not sure that any amount of money from Amazon will prove to be worth it. I’m already hearing Amazon advocates compare IBM to SCO, which while inaccurate in my view certainly isn’t going to do Big Blue any favors.
Guess I’ll wait and see how this plays out.
Disclaimer: IBM is a RedMonk client, as is an Amazon subsidiary, A9.