Microsoft + GPL = Match made in heaven

by Matt Asay

Microsoft has taken an increasingly warm approach to open source. It's not going to revolutionize the company tomorrow, but Bill Hilf and others are successfully nudging the company toward greater and greater experiments with open source.

Since the company will eventually get to an open source model, or die fighting it, I have some advice for Microsoft:


This will sound ridiculous to those who don't appreciate the nuances of the GPL, but the GPL is capitalism, pure and simple. It is the best way to benefit customers while inhibiting competitors, as I've argued before, which lends itself perfectly to Microsoft's business. From my interview with Charlie Babcock:
If a competitor takes your code, modifies it and redistributes it, then the giveback provision reasserts itself....So your competitor will be required to give the originating company all the changes that its made.

And the community that's formed around the original GPL code will probably not assist the competitor with further improvements. But it will quickly assimilate a competitor's changes, test them, modify and expand them and in general make life miserable for the competitor.

"With the GPL, you get the value of the changes back. You don't get that with other licenses," Asay notes. And if the original code supplier is on the ball, its going to move faster than any competitor can keep up.

"It's produced the best open source companies on the planet--Red Hat, MySQL and JBoss. The GPL is best suited for commercial companies...." he says.

But more profoundly, the GPL enables a fundamental change between a software company and its customers that in the long run is going to give GPL companies immense staying power.

"The GPL aligns the company's interest with the customer's. It forces me to stop thinking of the relationship as ending when I ship a set of bits. Instead, that's the start," and the nature of the ongoing relationship is determined by the caliber of upgrades to those bits, the quality of technical support, the strength of the programming community that forms around the bits.
Isn't this precisely where Microsoft competes? On the value of its ecosystem and the ability to deliver updates to customers? Why couldn't Microsoft have essentially the same model (for enterprises) with GPL'd code as it does with its proprietary license?

It could. It should. Hopefully, it will.

Some open source licenses don't readily lend themselves to commercial open source. Apache/BSD licensing, for example, is hard to monetize (directly). But the GPL is very easy to monetize directly: customers get the value they want and competitors are scared to touch it. Everyone (that matters) wins.

Microsoft needs to ditch its weird view on the GPL. It used to call it anti-American. It's actually the exact opposite. It is the most American of open source licenses. Microsoft could embrace it and continue to pull in its billions...and what could be more American than crass materialism? :-)


2007-03-24 03:41:05
The problem with GPL for Microsoft is that it doesn't allow monopoly abuse. GPL creates a level playing field for everyone where everyone is free to compete.

Free competition is a complete anathema to Microsoft because it diametrically opposed to Microsoft's core business model which is built solely on monopoly lock-in and monopoly abuse.

Now the BSD license allows Microsoft to take someone elses code for free, extend it and sell under it's own copyright it while the extensions and changes and deliberate incompatibilities put in by Microsoft deny the original author a market for selling his/her own code. Steal without giving back, that is music to Microsoft!