Microsoft and the Open Source Community: The Beginning of a Dialogue

by Malcolm Dean

Microsoft VP Craig Mundie says he was glad to visit with the Open Source community for a debate with Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann on Shared Source v. Open Source today at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. "I take away nothing but positive feelings," he said, despite pressing concerns expressed repeatedly from the audience and members of the round table which followed.

Mundie outlined Microsoft's worldwide concern with licensing and profitability issues, stressing that, as the need becomes clearer, Microsoft will adapt licenses to the needs of users and developers. Tiemann pointedly noted that Microsoft had behaved illegally in using its monopoly, and called for a clear understanding within Redmond's ranks for the meaning of Open Source software. And so a lively debate began with an audience eager to savor the historic moment.

Mundie stressed that, even with Microsoft, there are different opinions on open source. During the audience Q&A, as well as the press conference which followed, he was peppered with comments about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's famous comments in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times comparing Linux and open source to cancer and communism. Clearly dismayed, Mundie noted that Ballmer's comments were really meant to criticize the GPL, not open source software. "I've tried to focus the company on what was really bothering us about open source. I have tried to create some discipline in the way that we talk about it." None of Microsoft's executives would make the same comments today, he insisted.

"It's old news and should be treated that way," Tiemann agreed, noting that the important thing is to determine to what extent the shift in Microsoft's position on licensing agreements becomes a promise or a threat.

Craig Mundie

Craig Mundie Address the Open Source Community With audio

Click here for images and audio highlights of yesterdays debate between the open source community and Microsoft's Craig Mundie

Sitting beside Larry Wall, inventor of Perl, Bruce Perens, H-P's Linux and open source evangelist, noted that under the MS Mobile Toolkit license, you can't even use Perl in your products. Based on the experiences of H-P when open sourcing its printer drivers, Perens expressed concern that Microsoft patents may be embedded within the emerging ECMA .NET standards, as happened with SMB2, which Perens believes includes a patented password technology.

"I think you'll see us become clearer and more precise about licensing as this dialogue (with the open source community) proceeds," Mundie responded. "We want to be clear about what we're not giving away. We're reviewing our licensing worldwide, in many countries, and it is being simplified."

Network World's Dave Kearns asked why Microsoft doesn't hire developers specifically for open source, just as IBM and H-P do? Mundie could only point to a few Interix developers in India. David Stutz said his job as Microsoft peer services architect concerned open source full-time, an assertion which was quickly rejected by Perens and Tiemann, a member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) board. "We would be delighted to approach any license from Microsoft which actually meets the open source definition." (Later, Stutz insisted that many of his contacts understood Microsoft's share source licenses as open source.)

Stutz confirmed that Microsoft will not exercise its option for a Linux port of .NET in its contract with Corel Corporation. Redmond is clearly more comfortable with the FreeBSD license. But he insisted Microsoft wants Ximian's MONO project to succeed, and said he will work together with open source developers as MONO goes forward.

Now, at some point, the Roman Empire found it more profitable to make treaties with the barbarians than to engage them in ongoing conflicts. Wealthy beyond comparison, fond of competitive sports, protected by battle-tested armies of legal advisors, it was a "goldfish moment" for the empire, the moment when the bowl, no matter how transparent, became utterly apparent. So a senator from Redmond came to visit the neighbors, and sat down with them to break bread. Better than cracking skulls.

But clearly, Microsoft's answers frustrated and displeased many at the O'Reilly event. There was a feeling that while agreements are being made, understanding is still a long way off. Microsoft is firmly and forever a commercial venture seeking its own profit, reluctant to contribute possible advantages to others. It does not yet see itself as part of a larger community.

Clearly relieved that the debate and press conference had gone well, despite a few shrieks of protest from the audience, Tim O'Reilly noted that people who talk only with those of similar beliefs tend to become more extreme in their beliefs. But if they talk with those holding opposite opinions, they tend to become more moderate and open. "This is just an early step in the dialogue," he said, "and I think it's going to continue for quite some time."

Malcolm Dean is a broadcast journalist, technology writer and IT consultant based in Los Angeles.

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