Most technology sites today are reporting on the news that Microsoft is starting its patent attack on Linux. According to the news, it pertains to Microsoft suing a GPS device manufacturer (TomTom) for alleged infringement on Microsoft patents on the FAT32 filesystem. Sigh. This is again FUD.

While I do agree that there are utilities in Linux that use FAT32, it is most definitely non essential. There are like a dozen file-systems that Linux can use. 99% of Linux distributions will either use Ext-FS or ReiserFS as the default file-system. In fact, the only reason that FAT32 code is available in Linux is because of compatibility with other (read – Windows) systems, which is the same reason why NTFS has not taken over Windows entirely (backwards compatibility).

However, there is a far deeper problem here. 99% of consumer electronic devices use the FAT32 file-system (think thumb-drives, digital cameras, mp3 players). While most major companies would have licensed the patent from Microsoft, I can tell you with 100% certainty that there are a lot of companies who do not license it, particularly small and medium electronic companies.

I know for certain because this question gets asked a lot on various embedded electronic forums. Designers of embedded devices are always trying to embed things like SD-cards in their devices because it is very cheap storage (2Gb@RM20). The typical answer that designers get is that Microsoft owns the patent but they are unlikely to enforce it. This case may just change that.

So, while Microsoft may want to spin this as a battle against Linux, in reality it isn’t. Life goes on in Linux without FAT32. The ones who may really end up being hurt are consumer electronic companies like TomTom and ultimately the consumer.

The simple solution to this problem is for the whole consumer electronics industry to standardise on a new file-system that everyone will recognise in their products. However, this is a pipe dream as they aren’t even able to standardise on a single media (SD, CF, XD, MS). But this case may just force people to do that. Otherwise, Microsoft will always hold a knife at our throats.

PS: As for TomTom, since they control their product ecosystem entirely, they can just remove the offending FAT32 code and use JFS/Ext2 instead.

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered/Professional Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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