Microsoft is launching a two-pronged offensive against what it sees as its chief competition on the Internet: open source code.
In a preliminary license for its wireless Internet tools, the software giant appears to be floating a trial balloon by explicitly banning the use of open source code. Microsofts language, which could become part of its commercial licensing terms, specifically bans use of the Linux open source operating system (OS), which Microsoft seems to find especially objectionable.
But in a bid to attract more software developers to its Internet initiatives, Microsoft last week announced a “shared source” program, in which it will make available two key tools for Internet applications. The announcement appears to be an effort to broaden its appeal and escape the stamp of offering only closed Windows systems.
Microsofts ability to move on these two fronts simultaneously may be clouded by the June 28 appeals court decision that upheld the finding that Microsoft abused its monopoly power.
“Microsoft has identified Linux as its potential competitor and is attempting to limit its use,” said Albert Foer, an attorney and president of the American Antitrust Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that acts as watchdog for competitive factors in the American economy. “Microsoft seems to be going ahead as if antitrust doesnt exist and wont affect them.”
Language included in a license that labels open source code as “potentially viral” marked a stepped-up attack by the software giant.
The license for Microsofts Mobile Internet Toolkit, which is in its second beta release to developers, says that it may not be used with any software under the Free Software Foundations General Public License (GPL) and six other forms of “potentially viral software.” That language refers to open source codes freely available and shared code licensing agreements. The wording of the license cites the Linux OS and the Perl scripting language as examples.
For a company with monopoly power, “these provisions could be construed as attempting to leverage their current position in the operating system market into new markets,” a potential violation of antitrust, said Tim Cahn, an attorney at Legal Strategies Group in Emeryville, Calif. While software companies can put whatever restrictions they choose into a software license, “this isnt just another software company. This is Microsoft,” Cahn said.
Microsoft did not have any representatives available to comment on the license issue.
“Microsoft cant beat us technically, so theyve decided to strangle us in legal paperwork,” said Lorne Cooper, president of NuSphere, distributor of the MySQL open source database system, a potential competitor. Microsoft announced its restrictions as NuSphere and Great Bridge, a distributor of another open source database system, have begun to enjoy limited success as Internet systems.
At the same time, Microsoft is adopting a more open stance on its upcoming Internet software.
Microsoft is offering all comers a chance in the first half of next year to download and use for experimental purposes its upcoming language, C Sharp (C#), and its multilanguage Common Language Infrastructure, a sort of workbench for building Web services.
Until now, Microsoft has released only binaries, the ones and zeroes that disguise the original code. But in the “shared source” program, developers will receive the actual source code, written in letters and numerals, of the two future Microsoft products.
“There will be an incredible amount of interest in this among the academic and research communities,” said David Stutz, general program manager for Shared Source CLI at Microsoft. “There are a lot of positive lessons to be learned from the open source example,” he added.
By launching its Shared Source initiative for C# and CLI, while restricting competing open source code tools and code, “Microsoft is trying to confuse the issue,” said Miguel de Icaza, chief technology officer at Linux user interface firm Ximian.
De Icaza noted that, in the beta license, Microsoft restricts seven specific open source licenses, but made an exception of the FreeBSD, an open source Unix OS that came out of the University of California at Berkeley.
“Its an attack on Linux, which has market share as an operating system. FreeBSD has no market share, so they say, Oh, thats the good one, ” de Icaza said.
FreeBSD is offered with a less restrictive license than the GPL under which Linux is issued. With a GPL, additions to the source code that are published or distributed must be made available for free to any interested third party. With FreeBSD, companies may convert the source code into a commercial product without airing the changes or additions they have made.
Microsofts Tony Goodhew, project manager for Share Source CLI, said Microsoft is moving in the same direction as open source code advocates, but wishes to continue to protect its intellectual property from commercial exploitation by others. He said the companys Shared Source initiative goes so far as to allow developers to examine the example of C# and CLI code, and then build similar structures on the platforms of their choice.
Tim OReilly, president of OReilly & Associates, a Sebastopol, Calif., computer book publisher, said Shared Source represents Microsofts response to the popularity of Java and open source code in colleges and universities. “Theyre very desirous of having the academic community adopt C Sharp. Java has made a lot of headway there,” OReilly said.