Microsoft Makes Its Open-Source Move

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

Microsoft Makes Its Open-Source Move

The signs were there. Microsoft had been making nice with open source for some time now.

First, in late March, Ballmer and Red Hats CEO Matthew Szulik met for more than an hour at a McCormick & Schmicks restaurant in New York at Microsofts request. We still dont know what they talked about even after news of the meeting leaked in May, but I think were beginning to get the picture now.

Then, in April, Brad Smith, Microsofts general counsel, called for bridge building between Microsoft, its competitors and the open-source community.

Next, earlier this week, Microsoft announced that its forthcoming Office 12 Word, Excel and PowerPoint formats will be released under Office 2003-style royalty-free licenses.

And now, Michael Tiemann, president of the Open Source Initiative and vice president of open-source affairs at Linux vendor Red Hat Inc., has said, "They [Microsoft] wanted to begin a productive conversation, and we agreed to take that at face value."

Click here to read "Microsoft vs. Linux: Execs Talk Detente."

Has Microsoft seen the open-source light like Paul on the road to Damascus? Are Bill and Melinda Gates going to have Richard M. Stallman over for dinner? Will Eric Raymond and Ballmer go to the shooting range together?

Ah … I dont think so.

Neither, as the rumor mills had it a few weeks ago, do I see Microsoft buying Red Hat.

No, what I see happening here is that Microsoft making a very pragmatic decision that if you cant beat them, co-opt them.

Red Hat has a popular marketing campaign that quotes Gandhis famous quote, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

Or, you can join the winning team.

So, which is it? Is Microsoft trying to sneak its way into open-source lines to spread mischief, or do they want to win with open-source too?

I think its both.

Microsoft has a long, long history of making business alliances that end up benefiting only Microsoft.

For example, when Microsoft found that the Internet was going to be a big deal, it needed a Web browser and it needed one fast, since an upstart company named Netscape seemed to be going places.

So, Microsoft arranged with Spyglass to use its Mosaic code, the basis for Netscape, as the foundation for Internet Explorer. In return, Spyglass would receive a tiny quarterly fee and a percentage of Microsofts IE revenues for the software.

Of course, Microsoft then bundled IE with Windows, so there was no revenue to split. Spyglass eventually sued Microsoft and won $8 million for its troubles. Thats chicken feed compared with the value that IE brought Microsoft.

Next Page: Playing proprietary games with open standards.

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Microsofts long tale of playing proprietary games with open standards is also well-documented. My favorite instance of this is how the company took Kerberos, an open-standard network authentication protocol and "extended" it in Windows 2000 so that Microsofts "superior" and proprietary version was no longer compatible with standard Kerberos.

So, yes, anyone who works with Microsofts shared or open source, either on a business or coding level, needs to be darn careful not to get burned by this partnership. As the saying goes, if you sup with the devil, its best to have a very long spoon.

That said, Microsoft has never been as anti-open-source as some would have it. You dont have to look too closely at Windows code to realize that theres some BSD code in there. Thats perfectly legal under the BSD license.

Whats different now is that Microsoft is finally shaking off this idea that open-source development is the same thing as free software advocacy. Supporters of the first, like Linus Torvalds, see opening code as simply a better, but not only, way of developing code.

Free software advocates, like Eben Moglen, the legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation, see opening code as part of a fundamental right to freedom.

Microsoft might be able work with the first group, but it cant do that with the second.

Microsofts problem with the FSF in a nutshell is that it cant live with the GPL. Besides Gates public bleating on the evilness of the GPL, if you look at the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas Frequently Asked Questions youll find this statement, "Some open source licenses may include specific constraints or restrictions that might preclude development under the Office 2003 XML Reference Schema licenses."

Might that be the GPL, which requires that you not put patent license restrictions on downstream distributions? Why, yes, yes it would be.

Its not like Microsoft is the only company to find the GPL repellent. Sun, which has been claiming recently that its the company thats all about sharing, certainly doesnt like it either.

Click here to read about Suns CDDL license, which conflicts with the GPL.

While most open-source software is licensed under the GPL, much else isnt and Microsoft certainly wouldnt mind picking up other open-source goodies. Heck, even SCO, the enemy of all things Linux, includes open-source programs like Samba in its Unix distributions.

No, as I said earlier, Microsoft is making a very pragmatic decision.

I also think that the Redmondites decision to publicly open talk with Red Hats Tiemann is also based on cool business reasoning. Yes, Tiemann is the head of the OSI, but hes only the interim president the last I knew.

The real alliance, Microsoft may be looking for is one with Red Hat against two of its historical enemies, the newly reborn in Linux Novell, and the floundering Sun. And who would Red Hats two nearest and dearest rivals be? Why, Novell/SuSE, the No. 2 Linux company, which is trying hard to become No. 1, and their erstwhile partner Sun, with which theyve been feuding with for months now.

Read more here about the fraying of Sun and Red Hats relationship.

With all that in mind, can open-source trust Microsoft?

Well, I think you can trust Microsoft to be Microsoft. Thats just a way of saying that the boys from Redmond will do whats best for them. And that, in the long run, isnt likely to be the best for anyone else. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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