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Microsoft To Keep an Eye on Open Source

"I always feel like somebody's watching me
And I have no privacy"

-- from "Somebody's Watching Me" by Rockwell

If you remember the song from which we took today's opening quote, then you're probably a pretty big '80s music nerd. And that's a good thing because it's the nerds we're talking to today -- not so much the '80s music nerds but open source nerds, although we figure the groups might overlap pretty heavily.

We don't know whether Rockwell was into open source software back in the day, but the paranoia expressed in "Somebody's Watching Me" wouldn't be out of place for open source folks today. Big brother is out there, people...and its name is Microsoft.

This week, Microsoft announced that it's going to co-sponsor something called the Open Source Census, a project open source folks have undertaken to figure out exactly how much of their software is in use in enterprises and encourage folks to adopt even more of it. Not exactly a blockbuster thus far in terms of enterprise penetration, the Census could nevertheless ultimately serve as Microsoft's window (um, no pun intended) on what is probably its biggest competitor these days.

The folks in Redmond are talking up their census participation in interoperability terms, saying that it'll be helpful to know where open source software is and how people are using it so that Microsoft can better fit its applications to work with open source apps. Of course, there might be just a little bit more to Microsoft's participation, as this article keenly suggests (and we quote):

"Of course, the sponsorship can't be entirely altruistic. Hard data on the shape of open source software usage is difficult to come by since it can often be downloaded, shared and used at will. With more data, Microsoft would undoubtedly be able to better understand its open source competitors and where exactly their weaknesses lie."

Ah-ha! So, Redmond does have a sinister motive! Well, of course it does, and why shouldn't it? Open source folks are always saying that their applications are hard to compete with because they're, well, open, and because it's hard for a proprietary developer to innovate at the speed of the rest of the world. But there's another side to openness, and this is it -- Microsoft can just waltz right into the type of market research project that no proprietary competitor would dream of letting Redmond get near.

In the long run, Microsoft's participation probably won't make a huge amount of difference to the Census, other than to actually get it up and running in a serious way. And we wonder, really, to what extent Microsoft will just take over the whole thing and sort of ditch the "encouraging-the-use-of-open-source" stuff in favor of pure competitive research. Heck, a real conspiracy theorist -- although we're not in that category -- might suggest that Microsoft would fudge the numbers to make open source look less important in the enterprise than it really is.

In any case, the proprietary monster is on board, open source folks. Microsoft really is watching you now. You've got something in common with an '80s flash-in-the-pan pop act after all.

What's your take on the relationship between Microsoft and open source? Open up at lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on June 17, 2008 at 11:54 AM


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