Community Debates Microsofts Open-Source Agenda

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-06-03

Community Debates Microsofts Open-Source Agenda

Analysts and insiders—including Linus Torvalds—say they think that Microsofts move to start a dialogue with the open-source community shows that the company is recognizing that open source has real, lasting value.

After a series of friendly moves towards open-source developers, Microsoft Corp. has talked with Michael Tiemann, president of the Open Source Initiative and vice president of open-source affairs at Linux vendor Red Hat Inc., about meeting with him to "begin a productive conversation" between proponents of open source and Microsoft.

What could Microsoft have to talk about with the open-source community?

Well, for one thing, Microsoft might be trying to cool off the high emotions flying between fans of open source and of Microsoft.

"It appears that Microsoft is attempting to change the environment from its currently highly charged, highly emotional state to something more constructive," said Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs system software vice president.

Linus Torvalds, primary creator of Linux, said he would welcome such a change.

"Hey, Im all for being friendly," Torvalds said. "To me, Microsoft has never been the competition, and its never been a Linux vs. Microsoft thing, despite that obviously having been how a lot of people end up slanting it."

Read more here about Microsofts proposed summit meeting with Linux executives.

Microsoft may also have developers within it that truly want to contribute to open source.

"Non-constructive executive rhetoric aside, there are substantial bodies of people within Microsoft that either already have or are ready to make good faith contributions to the open-source world," said Stephen OGrady, a software analyst for RedMonk.

Tiemann of Red Hat even went so far as to suggest that the Microsoft Shared Source program represents "an attempt to quell an internal civil war" at Microsoft.

George Weiss, a Gartner Inc. vice president and distinguished analyst, said he doesnt buy this theory: "The people I know at Microsoft feel like theyre part of an elite and theyre proud of their work. Yes, some of them have interest in open source, but I dont see an internal divide with two camps warring with each other in Microsoft."

Instead, Weiss said he believes that Microsoft is trying diplomacy with the open-source community because the Redmond, Calif.-headquartered company has "recognized that they have to play in an eclectic world, which includes open source."

Now, this "doesnt change Microsofts basic business premise or its position on intellectual property or its business model, but they realize that they have to play with the open-source world to be successful," Weiss said.

Yankee Group Research Inc. analyst Laura DiDio agrees.

"This is a smart, pragmatic move on Microsofts part. The companys top executives, led by Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates, recognize that open source [approaches]—more specifically, Linux servers—have carved out a place for themselves in corporations," DiDio said.

Indeed, according to IDCs Kusnetzky, "Linux is responsible for a roughly 23 percent share of the revenue-producing shipments of server operating-environment software, and approximately a 2.6 percent share of the client operating-environment software revenue-producing shipments."

"Thats not going to change any time soon," DiDio said. "Microsoft knows that open source is a reality and they have to deal with their competitors and the competitors technologies in order to ensure at least baseline interoperability between the two disparate environments."

DiDio added, "This is not the early 1990s, when companies like Novell [Inc.], Banyan, IBM and Microsoft stubbornly resisted rivals presence in the same user environment and actively sought to discourage users from installing a competitors platform by withholding support. That type of behavior is simply unacceptable now. Its a buyers market."

Click here to read Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols commentary on whether the open-source community can trust Microsoft.

Another possibility, suggested Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst at Web services and SOA (service-oriented architecture) research house ZapThink, is that Microsoft is simply trying to get to know the open-source world better for its own purposes.

"I will hazard one response: in the words of Sun Tzu, Know your enemy as you know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat," Bloomberg said.

Kusnetzky said he isnt cynical about Microsofts move, though: "Another way to see this situation is that, in many cases, Red Hats and Novells customers are also Microsoft customers. Microsoft wants to be seen as being constructive and supporting organizations IT infrastructure. This is a positive move from my perspective."

Next Page: How Microsoft and open source can benefit each other.

How Microsoft, Open Source

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Microsoft may also be looking to put a "more friendly face on their organization, to not appear so much as a monopoly," Gartners Weiss said.

In particular, Weiss went on to say that Microsoft needs to change its image in Europe, where the software giant faces a market that is buying into open source and objects to Microsofts business tactics.

"Microsoft is not self-deluded enough to think that their business model is fitting as well in Europe or Asia as it has in North America," Weiss said. To fight this problem, "Microsoft needs to get more active in open source and provide hybrid solutions. They have to appear to straddle both the proprietary and open-source worlds."

Its the possibility that Microsoft will only appear to work with open-source developers and businesses that bothers many observers.

Weiss, for example, said he expects that it will be a "cat and mouse game between Red Hat and Microsoft about benefits and tradeoffs."

Torvalds also expressed wariness, saying, "I wonder what there is to discuss. … If Microsoft wants to do open source, they can do so even without any huge discussions. And if Microsoft doesnt want to do it, what discussions could there be? So call me paranoid, but unless Microsoft has changed their ways, I suspect a lot of the discussions from Microsofts side will be threats and positioning."

Weiss said he worries that "if Microsoft attempts to utilize open source to push its own proprietary products, then it can co-opt the open-source movement to further its own strengths, and this will work against Red Hat."

At the same time, Weiss said, "Microsoft must also deal with its thousands of business partners who have bought into its proprietary development ways. If these companies see Microsoft supporting an open-source project that competes with a product that came up through the Microsoft ecosystem, they will not be happy."

DiDio, on the other hand, raised the question of whether open-source companies will take advantage of Microsoft.

"This is not a one-way street," DiDio said. "The open-source community must also make overtures to Microsoft in order to serve their customers best interests. ... That means working with Microsoft on mutual areas of concern like integration, interoperability, security and high-level application support."

Its still far too early to know what will happen with Microsofts attempt to work with the open-source community, but analysts have some hopes.

"An open-source community that features an active, participating Microsoft, but a Microsoft thats forced to compete on the same terms as any other party, individual or corporate, seems like a win/win," RedMonks OGrady said.

However, OGrady continued, "Im not naive enough to think that greater immersion in the world of open source is going to trigger any epiphanies within the upper ranks at Redmond."

Still, Weiss said, if nothing else, "Microsoft recognizing open source helps gives open source and Linux validation."

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

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