Reconciling Microsoft and the open-source movement

The two aren't poles apart, says Neil McAllister

If you support open source, one of the initial things you learn is that you must bash Microsoft. It’s understandable; of all the proprietary software companies in the world the one in Redmond takes the cake for ill-will towards the open-source community. Just look at the famed “Halloween documents” to see the extent of the bad blood.

Through the years, this atmosphere of mutual animosity has inspired a number of people to try to get their shots in. Case in point: recently blogger Jason Cowan submitted the text of Microsoft’s community shared source software licence to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for consideration as an approved open-source licence. He did it without Microsoft’s knowledge. When OSI representatives inquired whether Microsoft would like OSI to go ahead with the evaluation, the software giant politely declined.

Good joke, right? After OSI shot down the shared source licence, it would be obvious to anyone that Microsoft’s purported overtures towards open source are a sham. High-fives all around.

But then, Microsoft never claimed that Shared Source was open source. Not long after the programme was launched, I spoke to Jason Matusow, who was then the director of the Shared Source Initiative. He described Microsoft’s licensing strategy as “a spectrum approach”, and acknowledged that the purpose of releasing Windows code under a shared source licence was not to let customers tinker with the OS, but merely to give them “a reference mechanism”.

Microsoft issued an email statement in response to Cowan’s actions: “Each source-licensing programme under the Shared Source Initiative is tailored to the needs of a particular Microsoft constituent community and can be applied as a model for increasing code transparency throughout commercial software.”

It’s easy for open-source advocates to deride this attitude. Source code or not, they’ll argue, nothing has really changed at Microsoft. But are they right?

Even as Cowan was busy with his stunt, Microsoft was reaching out in the other direction. Recently Sam Ramji, the director of Microsoft’s Open Source Software Lab, extended a unique invitation to coders from the Mozilla group. For four days in December, Firefox and Thunderbird developers will have the chance to work side by side with Microsoft employees to ensure that their code runs its best on the upcoming Windows Vista OS.

Of course the Mozilla developers accepted. Who wouldn’t?

I, for one, am glad the Mozilla team didn’t reject Microsoft’s offer. That would be just one more example of the fortress mentality of many in the open-source community towards a company that, quite frankly, is a fact of life in the IT industry. Like it or not, Windows remains the leading computing platform, particularly on the desktop. For open-source application developers to pretend otherwise would be pigheaded to the point of folly.

I’m not going to suggest that it’s a new day at Microsoft. But, at least where Firefox is concerned, the olive branch has been extended and accepted. Can’t we feel good about that?

There is no stopping the open-source movement now. From here on out, companies will use open-source software to power their businesses. But they’ll also use proprietary software for the foreseeable future. Too much of it is just too valuable to give it up.

It’s time for open-source advocates to set aside their pride, recognise their place in the larger software market and start working to build bridges, rather than fortresses. The pranks and the name-calling might be good for a chuckle, but they’re not really helpful.

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