Tim O'Reilly on Microsoft's Participation at the Open Source Convention

by Bruce Stewart

As many of you know, after Microsoft unveiled its Shared Source program and began its series of attacks on the GNU public license, Tim O'Reilly invited Microsoft senior vice president Craig Mundie to participate in a debate about Shared Source versus open source with Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann and other open source leaders at next month's O'Reilly Open Source Convention. Craig took Tim up on the offer.

We caught up with Tim to ask him how this came about and what he hopes to accomplish by bringing Microsoft to the Open Source Convention.

Stewart: Are you surprised that Craig Mundie took you up on your invitation to participate in this year's Open Source Convention?

O'Reilly: Not really. I did a fair amount of behind-the-scenes work on this project over the past couple of months. I visited Jim Allchin in February, after his first salvo at open source. We talked for several hours, and I followed up over the next month or so with several articles and various emails. I also sent Jim a copy of Cass Sunstein's Republic.com, a fascinating book that makes the case that people who talk with others who disagree with them tend to moderate their views, while people who talk only with those who agree become more extreme. I made this case repeatedly both to Microsoft and to open source leaders in email and on lists such as the Free Software Business (FSB) mailing list, urging them to spend more time talking rather than bashing each other from afar.

That doesn't mean I wasn't pleasantly surprised when he finally said yes. I just mean that it wasn't out of the blue.

Microsoft Plans Shared Source .NET--In this .NET DevCenter interview, Tim O'Reilly talks to Microsoft program manager Dave Stutz about Redmond's plans to release a shared-source version for part of its .NET framework for Windows and FreeBSD.

Stewart: What are your goals for bringing a senior representative from Microsoft to the most important conference for hard-core, open source developers?

O'Reilly: I want both sides to look each other in the eye and see if they can still say some of the outrageous things they say from a distance :-) When Eric Raymond calls senior Microsoft officials "thugs"--as he did in one email exchange--that doesn't encourage dialogue.

I haven't met Craig, but what struck me most about Jim Allchin was that he is just as much a "true believer" as Richard Stallman or Eric Raymond. He wasn't at all the cynical plotter he'd been characterized as. He really thinks that Microsoft has a better mousetrap, and he believes he is doing the right thing for the industry. He really doesn't believe that Microsoft-scale businesses can be built with free software.

In Microsoft's view, the system that maximizes profits for software developers is one that maximizes the capability for investment, and thus innovation. Of course, I believe Microsoft ignores the fact that a great deal of innovation happens outside the commercial sector, and that they have profited enormously from open source development efforts, which have pioneered new innovations that they could then exploit commercially. As I wrote back in November 1998, in the open letter to Microsoft that I published after the release of the Halloween Document:

The collaborative, massively distributed development process behind the Internet and open source projects is not your enemy. It is your friend, the source of basic research that you can turn into your next generation of products.

At bottom, the Open Source Movement is an expression of the Western academic tradition, innovation and discovery through the free exchange of ideas. You rig that system at your peril. You have only to look at the stagnation of Soviet science and industry under a centralized autocratic system, versus the innovation that happened in our free markets, to see what fate you have in store for yourselves if you succeed.

Microsoft is too smart a company to sacrifice long-term vitality for short-term advantage. Instead of trying to crush open source, you should follow the lead of companies like O'Reilly, IBM, and Silicon Graphics, who are supporting various open source communities while finding ways to build commercial added-value products on the open platforms these communities provide.

For years, I have wanted to convince Microsoft that they should be supportive of open source, and I think that they will eventually get the idea, just as lumber companies are gradually learning that planting new forests makes better business sense than clear-cutting and moving on.

Open Source Convention Logo To hear Craig Mundie's presentation on Microsoft's Shared Source program and the panel discussion with Craig, Michael Tiemann, and other open source leaders, don't miss the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, July 23-27 in San Diego.

I don't believe the Microsoft business model--however successful to this point--is sustainable over the long term. They've created a zero-sum game in many markets, in which profit maximization by Microsoft leads to zero profits for everyone else, and thus limits the overall growth of the market. The problem is that if Microsoft succeeds with its hypercompetitive tactics to the point at which no one but Microsoft has the resources to invest in the future, or if areas of investment are cut off because venture capitalists and entrepreneurs know that Microsoft will just drive them into the ground at the first sign of success, that cuts down on the total amount of innovation.

Open source has in a sense rescued Microsoft from the corner they painted themselves into. Because open source developers haven't been driven by the profit motive, they could innovate in ways that the commercial software industry no longer seems able to.

So at bottom, I believe a "kinder, gentler Microsoft" that is more supportive of software innovations in the public sector is actually in Microsoft's best interest. The question is how to get them to understand that. There is a huge amount of open source at a grassroots level within Microsoft. The question is how to help them develop a conscious open source strategy.

On the other side, I want open source developers to get over their everything-Microsoft-does-is-evil mentality. Microsoft is doing a lot of interesting work, especially in the area of defining a next-generation "Internet operating system." It's absolutely critical that we come up with a version of that operating system that has the open characteristics of today's Internet. If those of us who are steeped in open systems don't engage with Microsoft around this next-generation system, it's more likely to be closed and proprietary. If all we do is play the "king of the mountain" game that Microsoft is so good at, and spend all our time trying to topple them from their pedestal, we'll all waste huge amounts of energy that could otherwise be spent building a future that will benefit all of us.

And let's be frank and get past all this highfalutin stuff. An event like this could be a blast! It's going to be fabulous to have Craig Mundie and Mike Tiemann going head to head, with a hard-hitting panel afterwards and juicy questions from the audience. Those of us in the conference business know that part of our job is to entertain and excite our audience. And what could be more exciting than a meeting of this type? This is really going to be a historic event.

Stewart: Yes, indeed. This is a meeting between representatives from the Open Source Movement and those of whom many in the open source community consider to be their primary enemy. What do you think each side can learn from the other?

O'Reilly: I think everyone can learn that sincere people exist on the other side of the fence, with different views, and have a little more respect for each other. But I don't expect a golden age of tolerance or anything like that.

What Would You Ask Craig Mundie?--If you have a question that you'd like to see Craig asked at this July's Open Source Convention, oreilly.com has set up a forum to collect reader questions. Here's your chance to put your questions to him.

Mainly, I want Microsoft to acknowledge that there's a lot of great work being done in the open source community, work that's good for Microsoft and the industry. And I want the open source community to accept the real challenge of competing with Microsoft: not to try to undercut or copy Microsoft's existing products, but to go on playing leapfrog with them in defining next-generation products. Just as the open Internet showed a future that was more enticing than the world of closed online services that players like Microsoft and America Online were pushing in the early '90s, I think we're on the verge of a world of open Web services that is more interesting than the client-server systems we've been stuck with for the past while.

Stewart: Microsoft seems to have been turning up the volume of its criticisms of open source software recently with prominent public statements by Mundie, Steve Ballmer, and Jim Allchin. Eric Raymond has labeled this a "classic Big Lie campaign against open source." Do you think this is part of an orchestrated plan, or is that too much of a conspiracy theory?

O'Reilly: I do think that Microsoft got its shorts in a knot about government-backed projects like SELinux (Security-Enhanced Linux) that mandate the GPL as a license. There's no question that this kind of thing could hurt Microsoft in the pocketbook. And so, yes, they went on the attack. But I don't think it's some master plan worked out in every detail by Microsoft and Waggener-Edstrom--its PR agency. Part of Microsoft's strength is the fact that it has a lot of people who work pretty independently.

So, for instance, I do think Jim Allchin's initial statements really were off the cuff, as I reported in my Weblog. I also think, though, that once the issue was out on the table, Microsoft certainly formulated a message and rallied behind it. That's something Microsoft is also really good at. Once they decide something is important, they do marshall a lot of force and focus.

Stewart: A lot of press attention has been given to Microsoft's recently announced Shared Source program, which appears to be a response to the success of the Open Source Movement. Do you see this as an attempt by Microsoft to co-opt the momentum of open source, and are there reasons to think they could succeed?

O'Reilly: "Co-opt" is something of a loaded word. A lot of companies want to get the benefits of open source without necessarily giving up their existing business models. It's a lot easier for a hardware company like IBM or HP to embrace open source since they have a guaranteed revenue stream that doesn't depend on software. For Microsoft, software products are the crown jewels and the heart of their business model. Of course, they see the benefits of Internet-enabled cooperation, and they want some of that mojo, so they're trying to dip their toe in the water without going in so deep they can't get back out. Give them time.

Keep in mind that Red Hat, the most successful open source software company--by that I mean a company that sells and supports software as its primary business activity--is only about 1/250th the size of Microsoft. ($100 million versus $25 billion.) Microsoft has a lot of revenue at stake and they need to find business models to protect, and even increase, that revenue.

This is why I keep pointing to Internet service providers as the companies that have most clearly demonstrated how to make money with free software. [See, for example, the final part of Tim's Weblog, A Response to Andrew Leonard on the Demise of Eazel.] ISP revenue is collectively in the tens of billions of dollars. And when you think about it, what are ISPs selling but subscription access to services powered mostly by free software? I see basic Internet services like mail, news, and Web as equivalent to basic cable. The question before us is who is going to start offering the premium channels? And will those channels also be predicated on standards-based open source software, or will they be proprietary?

Because they have a history of keeping tight control over their software, Microsoft is going to try to move into Web services in a way that gives them control. But I believe that there are lots of lessons from the Internet about how to build substantial businesses with commodity services based on free software, and I expect Microsoft to learn some of those lessons.

Stewart: A common criticism of Microsoft's executives' recent posturing around open source is that their comments tend to muddy the distinctions between open source and free software, and apply criticism of the GPL to anything considered open source. Do you think this is purposeful, or does Microsoft just not "get" open source?

O'Reilly: In Jim Allchin's case, I'm quite clear it was just a matter of not being very precise. As he says, it was the end of a long day of interviews. If you've ever done a press tour (as I have), you know that by the end of the umpteenth interview, it's pretty hard to keep from slipping up in one way or another.

However, I do think that since that point Microsoft has been more intentional in their attack on the GPL. After all, the GPL is the one open source license that's explicitly designed to keep business models like Microsoft's at bay. BSD-style licenses assume goodwill.

However, even BSD-style licenses can work in the face of possible proprietary forks. If the software implements widely used standards (as does Apache and Sendmail), it's a lot harder to "embrace and extend." Open standards and protocols are as important a defense, in my book, as any license.

Stewart: Some people have wondered why you didn't invite Richard Stallman to debate Craig Mundie. After all, it's the GPL that Microsoft has singled out for attack, and Richard is the author of the GPL. What do you have to say about this?

O'Reilly: Given that the heart of Microsoft's attack has been to argue that the GPL is bad for business, Michael Tiemann seemed like a better choice. As the founder of Cygnus, he was the very first person to base a business on open source, and he's now the CTO of the most visible open source software business. He's a very articulate spokesman for the point of view that the GPL and business are in fact quite compatible, and he has the track record to prove it. (Richard would be more likely to make the point that it's irrelevant whether the GPL is good for business. His position is a moral one, not a practical one.)

Michael has also written some very thoughtful responses to Microsoft's Shared Source program.

I'd also like to say a bit about the members of the panel discussion, which follows the two keynote talks, and why each of them were invited.

Dave Stutz was the first highly placed developer at Microsoft that I got to know well. He was part of our P2P Conference program committee, and I came to respect not only his technical acumen but also his values. This is a guy who is every bit as interesting--and interested in doing the right thing--as the best open source developers. He was one of the chief architects of Visual Basic for many years, and he is now Microsoft's point man on decentralized computing. Dave sat in on my meeting with Jim Allchin, and he helped persuade Craig to come to the conference. He's someone who can "talk turkey" with our hacker audience as well as demonstrate firsthand that Microsoft developers can be really wonderful people.

Mitchell Baker calls herself the "chief lizard wrangler" at mozilla.org, which translates roughtly into "general manager." But she's also a lawyer, and the author of the MPL and NPL, the open source licenses Netscape developed. She has as keen a knowledge of the legal and business issues in open source licenses, especially as they affect corporate issues, as anyone I know.

Brian Behlendorf, one of the cofounders of Apache and now the CTO of Collab.Net, is someone whose projects have used BSD-style licenses, and who has a good sense of why these licenses sometimes make more sense both for businesses and for developers than the GPL. Through Collab.Net, Brian has also been deeply engaged with businesses like Sun Microsystems and Oracle, which, like Microsoft, are trying to embrace open source without using it for all of their offerings.

Ronald Johnston is an attorney from Arnold & Porter. Microsoft felt uncomfortable having the only lawyer on the panel be from the open source side, so they suggested that Ronald would be someone who would be able to hold up their end of a legal argument, if we went down that path.

I invited Clay Shirky as a bit of a wild card. Clay hasn't been deeply involved with the Open Source Movement, but he's done a lot of thinking about where Microsoft is going with Hailstorm and .NET, and he is in a good position to ask questions relating to Microsoft's "Open Access" model, their attempt to get the benefits of openness without weakening corporate control.

Again, I have to say I'm really looking forward to this debate. I'm excited to get these folks talking together and it should be a lot of fun.

Tim O'Reilly is founder and president of O'Reilly & Associates and an activist for Internet standards and for open source software.