Open Things Up, Microsoft

Now is the time to get with the shared source program.

Its time for Microsoft to put its software where its mouth has been.

Late last year, an individual with connections to the open-source community submitted one of Microsofts Shared Source licenses to the Open Source Initiative for approval as an OSI-sanctioned open-source license.

The license submitter, John Cowan, was not a Microsoft employee. We knew little about Cowans motives, but we did know that Microsoft was none too pleased that it was being rushed into taking the seemingly momentous step of getting the official OSI blessing for its Microsoft Community License.

In some ways, I cant blame Microsoft for rebuffing Cowans efforts. Would I want someone submitting a story I had written for publication in a magazine or newspaper without my prior knowledge? Or, if I had developed a patentable product or service, would I take kindly to someone else seeking patent approval for it, even in my name?

Nonetheless, Microsofts reaction to this latest development says volumes about the companys current thinking about open source. Microsoft officials rarely are lashing out at open-source vendors, strategies and policies these days. Instead, Microsoft wants to be seen as a potential partner—perhaps even a "friend"—of the open-source community.

In August, the head of Microsofts open-source lab invited the Mozilla development team to Redmond to participate in a Vista porting lab to ensure that Firefox and Thunderbird work properly on Windows Vista. In late July, Microsoft invited some leaders in the open-source programming community to take part in the .Net language confab on campus.

But Microsoft isnt ready to take the next step. Microsoft officials have said they believe some of their Shared Source licenses would pass muster with the OSI. OSI members and backers have said they are interested in seeing Microsoft submit these licenses. So why arent the Softies submitting the Shared Source licenses themselves?

Publicly, Microsoft officials say that vendors—not customers—are the only ones who care whether or not a software license is OSI-backed. I have no idea if this is the case. And if it is true, couldnt the same be said about the extent to which customers are interested in whether or not a license is Shared Source?

One very real reason for Microsofts reticence is payback. The OSI has not been friendly to Microsoft in the past. Now, Microsoft wants to hold the OSIs feet to the fire and gain some concessions in return for going through the OSI channels.

One of the concessions Microsoft is seeking is the final burial of the infamous Halloween Documents. Any Microsoft historians out there remember the Halloween Documents? These were internal Microsoft memos dating from the late 1990s made public by open-source advocate and former OSI President Eric Raymond. The memos, which detailed Microsofts divide-and-conquer plans around open source, are currently hosted on Raymonds personal Web site but can be found via a direct link on the OSI Web site.

The Halloween Documents are part of Microsofts history. With new leaders such as Bill Hilf, Microsofts director for platform technology strategy, the Halloween Documents may no longer reflect Microsofts current position, vis-à-vis open source. It may be painful for Microsoft for them to be on display, but they dont deserve to be swept under the rug.

If Microsoft really wants credit and credibility in the open-source world, it needs to stop the squeamishness and show good faith. Why not let bygones be bygones and just let the whole Halloween Documents issue drop? And why not submit a couple of Shared Source licenses for OSI approval, just to see what happens?

Talks with open-source leaders are good. But talk is cheap. And beer is free … at least in some open-source circles.

What do you think, readers? Do you care whether Microsoft gets an official OSI OK for any of its software licenses? Can you see any business, political or other reasons Microsoft should refrain from doing so?

Microsoft Watch Editor Mary Jo Foley can be reached at