Is This the Right Room for an Argument?

by Jason Matusow

Several weeks ago, Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig and I traded Monty Python references before a distinguished audience at the iLaw conference hosted by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Looking back on my choice of reference, I find it more apropos than ever.

In the "Argument Clinic Sketch," a man looking to engage in an intellectual argument initially enters the wrong room--the "abuse room"--and, not surprisingly, gets abused. When he finally does enter the "argument room," he encounters a debate somewhat less cerebral than he had imagined. The "argument" turns out to be nothing more than a circular series of contradictions that are inconclusive and extremely funny.

On May 3, 2001, Microsoft's Craig Mundie gave a speech introducing the company's Shared Source Initiative and engaged the industry in a discussion about development models and source licensing. Three minutes of that hour-long speech addressed the GNU General Public License (GPL) and placed us squarely in the wrong room. Before Craig's speech, another Microsoft executive made several statements characterizing open source software in an unflattering light. The result was that, as we moved into the "argument room," these two comments and the GPL portion of the speech triggered an industry debate of circular contradictions that have proven to be inconclusive, and certainly not funny.

As the architect and day-to-day manager of the Shared Source Initiative, I would like to move the industry debate regarding source licensing (including open source, shared source, commercial software, and so on) out of the "argument clinic" and into a more serious forum.

And Now for Something Completely Different

The previously referenced comments about open source software have been retracted and acknowledged as poor choices of words. The comments were made more than a year ago and do not represent our position with respect to open source software. At O'Reilly's Open Source Convention last year, Craig was as clear as he could be, repeating three times at the outset of his speech that, "We are not against open source." Our use of open source technologies and actions taken over the past year make this point more clearly than any words.

Microsoft's first TCP/IP stack was an open source implementation; we have since chosen to build our own. Today, the Microsoft Hotmail service still runs on FreeBSD Unix DNS servers. The remainder of the Hotmail infrastructure runs on the Windows operating system. In our Services for Unix offering, we are shipping more than 200 open source tools, including the free software tool GCC, which we modified and then published the changes for the modifications in accordance with the terms of the GPL.

In addition, through the Shared Source Initiative, we offer Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows .NET Server source code to customers, systems integrators, governments, academic researchers, and OEMs in more than 30 countries. Windows CE source and .NET components have been downloaded by more than 100,000 developers over the past five months alone, and we are rapidly expanding our source-access programs.

Does this mean that Microsoft is an open source company? No. We are a commercial software company, but we have learned from the open source community and we recognize the benefits of source access for our customers and partners. The objective for any commercial software company is to strike a balance between sharing source code and maintaining a robust business model based on the sale of software. The Shared Source Initiative is the realization of that objective.

Open source software has played a critical role in the software ecosystem for the past 30 years and will continue to be important in the future. Commercial software companies, however, have provided the vast majority of software R&D investment and produced the lion's share of software innovation. It is difficult to overvalue the groundbreaking contributions of IBM, Apple Computer, Sun Microsystems, Banyan Worldwide, Novell, and Microsoft, to name just a few. Yet it is the amalgamation of open source and commercial technologies that consistently has transformed software innovation from basic research into usable technology for businesses and individuals, bolstering the economy and enriching our lives.

This past year we've witnessed a clear move to the middle by both commercial and open source software providers. Commercial vendors are establishing programs to share source code, to contribute to open source projects, and to invest in the development community. Open source providers are adopting more traditional software revenue models to sustain their businesses. In the end, all participants in the software ecosystem are benefiting from the lessons of both the open source and commercial models.

The software industry remains extremely competitive, and open source software offerings vie with commercial software. Microsoft competes with rival offerings regardless of whether or not they are commercial or open source in nature. Competition with open source software should not be seen as an attack on open source or on those who choose to develop under that model. In a sense, we are agnostic on this topic; we believe we can provide customers with the best software solutions to meet their needs, period. Even in discussing the GPL, which is widely seen as controversial, I assert that we need to move from the pejorative to the substantive.

Commercial vendors do more than sell products; they also deliver value. If any company's product ceases to deliver value, no matter what development model was used, the market will exercise its ultimate power: not to buy.

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Jason Matusow is the program manager of the Shared Source Initiative at Microsoft Corp.

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