Microsoft's Shared Source Program is a Validation of Open Source Disguised as an Attack

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Tim O'Reilly
May. 04, 2001 11:34 AM
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Microsoft SVP Craig Mundie is dead right when he said in his Commercial Software Model speech at NYU that the next generation of Internet applications can only come about through development efforts from a wide-ranging group of companies and developers. And Microsoft's "Shared Source Philosophy" is a clear vindication of open source as the best way to engage an inclusive developer community. They're lining up to "embrace and extend" the open source development model precisely because it has proven so compelling a threat to the monopoly they've enjoyed for so long.

But Mundie's claim that open source is somehow to be equated with the excesses of the dot com frenzy ignores the role of open source in the creation of huge new businesses from ISPs like UUNET to content aggregators like Yahoo!, not to mention fueling the growth of industry giants like Cisco, Sun, IBM, HP, and Microsoft itself. (I have long argued that Microsoft is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the open source revolution, as their upgrade revenue stream through the late 90's was driven largely by the incorporation or duplication of functionality pioneered by open source projects.) Yes, many companies have failed. But how many of Microsoft's peers from the personal computer explosion of the 80's are still around to tell the tale? Any technological revolution has its losers as well as its winners.

Similarly, Mundie's contention that open source encourages "code forking" is a red herring. If multiple distributions of Linux demonstrate "unhealthy forking of a code base", what conclusion can we draw about Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000, Me and XP? All that variations between Linux distributions or Microsoft operating systems demonstrate is that it's difficult to make a single piece of software that meets every need, or to evolve software while always maintaining backwards compatibility. Code forking is a tool used by both closed and open source projects, and like all tools, can be used well or badly. The code fork represented by the evolution of Apache from the NCSA web server demonstrates just how powerful a part of the open source toolkit forking is. It allowed a project that had been abandoned by its original creators to go on and become the dominant platform for web development.

It is also disingenuous for Microsoft to decry forking when the company has itself has forked open source code in order to embrace and extend it with proprietary functionality. (Microsoft's recent extensions to Kerberos are one controversial example.) It is this kind of behavior by Microsoft that has led many programmers to choose the GPL, a license that ensures that any code forks are distributed under the same terms as the original code. A better answer for users than either "embrace, extend and extinguish" or the GPL might just be a respect for open standards and interoperability when a fork is truly justified.

Further, Mundie's focus on the supposed evils of the GPL is somewhat of a smokescreen. While he raises legitimate issues about the ideal balance between software freedom and intellectual property, he ignores the widespread business adoption of other open source technologies like Apache and Perl that use more flexible, IP-friendly licenses. And although a significant chunk of any Linux distribution is covered by the GPL, business use has soared in the past few years with no notable IP tragedies to date.

The world of computing has changed, and the smart people at Microsoft are trying hard to figure out how to stay ahead of the pack. They're doing a lot of things right--they've got a big story in .NET. But if you think the battle between closed source and open source is interesting, just wait till you see the battle between closed and open services in the emergent network-centric operating system Microsoft is so eager to see replace the current desktop-centric platform.

I've invited Craig Mundie to be my guest at our Open Source Convention in San Diego this July. If he wants to bring along some colleagues, I'll welcome them, too. After a few days immersed in the bleeding edge of open source development, I think he'll have an even bigger story to tell.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. In addition to Foo Camps ("Friends of O'Reilly" Camps, which gave rise to the "un-conference" movement), O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the Web 2.0 Summit, the Web 2.0 Expo, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Gov 2.0 Summit, and the Gov 2.0 Expo. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim's long-term vision for his company is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. In addition to O'Reilly Media, Tim is a founder of Safari Books Online, a pioneering subscription service for accessing books online, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, an early-stage venture firm.