Will Friction Between Microsoft and Open-Source Community Cause Flames?
It's been a long, hot summer in the open-source world, particularly in the regions where open source and Microsoft butt up against each other, causing friction between and within the two camps as their members battle over whether and how they should interact.
Microsoft has been all over the map with regard to open source, extending in July a promise not to pursue patent infringement litigation against open-source developers who implement the ECMA standards that underlie Microsoft's .NET Framework.
I viewed the promise as a step in the right direction and a boon for Mono, the open-source implementation of Microsoft .NET. However, for many in the open-source community-particularly those who identify with the Free Software Foundation-this promise rang hollow considering that the guarantee excluded large swaths of .NET and that Microsoft had, only a few months earlier, made good on previous patent saber-rattling by suing Linux-based GPS navigation device maker TomTom for patent infringement.
For its part, the FSF has spent the summer alternately blasting individuals and groups for and warning them against using or adopting technologies distributed or even invented by Microsoft. For instance, the FSF this summer launched a Website devoted to cataloging the "sins" of Windows 7 and has weighed in on multiple occasions as to why, despite what Microsoft promises, no open-source developer should code in Microsoft's C#.
Not everyone involved in open source agrees with the stance and strategy of the FSF, however. Canonical, the company that sponsors Ubuntu Linux, has rebuffed demands that Ubuntu remove Mono and Mono-based applications from its default install, and many individual open-source community members-including Linux founder Linus Torvalds-have decried the demonization of Microsoft.
And yet, some within Microsoft continue to fan the flames, as evidenced most recently by the sale of a batch of open-source-related patents with the purpose-according to Red Hat and Linux Foundation allegations-of seeding patent trolls with the means to undermine Linux and open-source software.
In the midst of this acrimony, Microsoft has launched a new foundation aimed at enabling "the exchange of code and understanding among software companies and open-source communities."
The new organization, called the Codeplex Foundation, hasn't completely taken shape. But, due to its broad, technology-agnostic stance, Codeplex appears to resemble more closely the Free Software Foundation than it does other open-source groups tied to specific technologies. The generic approach is important-if you're the maker of Windows, IIS and Visual Studio, your involvement in the Linux, Apache or Eclipse foundations can only go so far.
And let's face it: If your organization holds as one of its founding principles that proprietary software is intrinsically immoral, as the FSF does, your ability to promote open-source understanding among proprietary software companies is awfully constrained.
There is the potential for the CPF to fill the gap between open-source foundations focused on particular platforms and groups tied to a narrow ideology. But if the CPF is to fill this gap, the same zigzag strategy that's marked Microsoft's dealings with open source during the past few years won't cut it.
Once the foundation has gotten its footing and expanded its membership, leadership and sponsorship beyond its current, mostly Microsoft status, the foundation's first order of business should be to establish an agreement among its members on what constitutes appropriate use of their patent portfolios.
At best, the CPF could help forge a comprehensive software patent nonaggression agreement that'd make the industry safe for innovation. At the least, the foundation should make completely clear which technologies are to be considered encumbered, and by which patents, so the industry can steer clear of or begin filling in those patent potholes.
Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.