Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Microsoft: the Rodney Dangerfield of open source

If you haven't been following the latest developments in the open source world, here's an interesting development. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) has just certified two Microsoft licenses as open source.

This is a big deal. OSI is the organization that determines which software licenses qualify as open source, according to a list of 10 criteria. Microsoft submitted two of its shared source licenses, the Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL) and the Microsoft Reciprocal License (Ms-RL) to OSI, which generated an enormous amount of debate within the open source community concerning Microsoft's motives and whether OSI should approve such licenses.

In the end, however, OSI gave the nod to the two Microsoft licenses. OSI president Michael Tiemann wrote, “The decision to approve was informed by the overwhelming (though not unanimous) consensus from the open source community that these licenses satisfied the 10 criteria of the Open Source definition, and should therefore be approved.”

Lora Bentley's blog
on IT Business Edge has a good round up of the news.

Microsoft's motives
So why is Microsoft, whose CEO Steve Balmer once referred to the open source operating system Linux as a "cancer," now seeking approval of its two licenses as open source? I think the answer is two fold.

First, Microsoft needs to do everything it can to counter the perception (and reality) that it has monopoly power. For example, it is having to jump through very small hoops in Europe in order to comply with a 2004 anti-competition EU court ruling. Just this month it has agreed to make workgroup server interoperability information available to open-source developers. Like it or not, Microsoft has to open up and if it is going to open up it might as well do so on its own terms.

Second, open standards are increasingly valued by buyers in their technology decisions. For example, three years ago the State of Massachusetts proposed a mandate that all state documents be saved in open, standards-based file formats. This move nearly cost Microsoft the loss of its entire Office business in the state. Only intense lobbying by Microsoft got the state to draft specifications that allows state workers to continue using Microsoft Office, as long as they used its open XML format to save documents. Openness is part of the buying decision for many purchases, and if Microsoft wants to win it has to open up.

No respect
Which leads to a paradox. Why does Microsoft get so little credit for its move to open source, while companies like Apple get very little criticism for its continued reliance on proprietary systems?

Apple really likes open source--as a component of its offerings. For example, Apple incorporates open source code from GNU, OpenBSD, NetBSD, and FreeBSD into its Mac OS X operating system. But when has Apple ever--I mean ever--released any of its own code as open source? Its iPod music format is proprietary. iPhone handheld device can only operate on Apple's partner AT&T's network. Apple takes all kinds of legal and technical measures to keep these products closed.

Yet many of the same folks that criticize Microsoft for its perceived lack of openness are carrying iPhones and iPods.

Even a small thing like blogging shows how little respect Microsoft gets for openness generally. There is probably no company in the world that has more of its employees blogging--with corporate approval but little corporate control--than Microsoft. In contrast, Apple is like the old Soviet Union. The firm does not allow employees to blog as Apple employees, in line with its near-obsessive attempts to control information. It even posted a notice at its developer conference last year warning attendees not to blog any information presented.

Yet, nearly everyone thinks of Apple as cool.

Microsoft's public and private war against open source, historically, has a lot to do with its credibility gap in the open source community. Read the Halloween Documents if you don't know what I'm talking about. And, much of it simply goes with the turf of being the largest software company in the world.

The reality, however, is that even Microsoft is being forced by the market into open standards and open source. And that's good news for technology buyers.

Update, Oct. 25. A commenter (read here) points out that Apple released Webkit and Darwin as open source. Webkit is an application framework built with code that Apple developed along with components of the KDE open source desktop environment. Darwin is a desktop OS built with code from other open source projects along with code that Apple got from its acquisition of NeXT. I stand corrected.

Some of the other comments serve as evidence of my main point: Microsoft does not get much credit for open sourcing some of its code and--because of its own behavior in the past--may never get respect. It is probably being forced into openness for the reasons I outlined in the post, but regardless, Microsoft's actions are good for buyers.

Related posts
More on Microsoft's attempted patent shakedown of open source users
Microsoft threatens Linux users
Strange bedfellows: Microsoft and Novell in Linux deal
The economics of open source


Anonymous said...

"But when has Apple ever--I mean ever--released any of its own code as open source?"

Webkit. Darwin.

Not that I'm defending Apple, just be careful to state the exceptions when making statements like this.

Overall I agree with your article, but there's one important point. With the exception of the iPod, Apple generally does not attempt to intentionally torpedo open source interaction with its software, like Microsoft has been known to. Sometimes it even supports it.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me, but when was the last time Apple threatened Open Source with patent violation suits, called it a cancer, stated it was insecure and unrealiable, etc. etc. etc.

Oh, that's right they NEVER did!

We have no problems with proprietary code, but we do appreciate honesty.

MS makes an inferior, bug ridden, security hole of an OS and then seeks to lie about the competition and about its own software. In addition, MS' through its monopolistic practices and deal with OEMS, attempt to limit people's choices.

I do not see IBM, Oracle, or Apple doing the same.

Sure a commercial company should try and overcome the competition. But if you continuously lie in your ads and campaigns, why would you expect consumers to trust and respect them?

Anonymous said...

We all know that MS won't open any bits of code that they intend to use as leverage to **** everybody else about. What goes around .....

Anonymous said...

Apple can be hacked by open source, hence it's *nix.