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Why Does Microsoft Pretend To Be Open Source-Friendly?

We're going old school -- like, long-before-your-editor-was-born school -- to set the mood for this one. Microsoft's been talking open source again, which usually leads to anger in the open source community, double-talk from Redmond and confusion for the rest of us.

Not long ago, Microsoft dropped a white paper on how great a job it's doing of "actively participating in open source." You can download the white paper here, but we'll warn you that the PDF crashed your editor's Firefox browser multiple times but worked fine in Internet Explorer (seriously). That's just a word of warning. That's all we're saying. Any irony you might derive from that little revelation is purely your own and not the responsibility of RCPU.

Microsoft's history with open source is controversial at best and disastrous at worst, and it's hard to get a read on how the company really feels about non-proprietary technology. We're guessing that most folks in Redmond hate it, but regardless they clearly acknowledge its importance and want to do something about it. Some seem to want to interoperate with it and embrace it; others seem interested in patent-bashing it to death, and still others seem to see the whole thing as a standards battle. Nevertheless, open source is clearly on the radar in the Pacific Northwest.

So Microsoft is addressing open source -- perhaps in a somewhat contradictory and confounding way, but it's addressing it nonetheless. That's fair to say. But -- and this is what we've been leading up to -- the notion that Microsoft is "actively participating in open source" seems a little misleading. Oh, sure, it's a vague enough statement; there probably isn't a company in the industry that isn't "actively participating in open source" in one way or another, and given that Firefox is the official browser of RCPU, we figure we're "actively participating in open source," too. Just about everybody in the world who uses a computer probably is somehow.

So we're not calling anybody in Redmond a liar here, but we are left with the distinct impression that Microsoft is trying to make itself out to be open source-friendly, almost accepting of the model and much more a part of the open source community than it really is. Oddly enough, the whole white paper doesn't really read that way, and overall it's not a bad assessment of the Microsoft-open source relationship. But phrases like this in the introduction jump out at us:

"Microsoft's open source strategy is grounded in recognition of the value of openness to working with others -- including open source communities -- to help customers and partners succeed in today's heterogeneous 'world of choice.'"

Suitably vague, of course...and we're not impressed. Why go on the defensive, Microsoft? Why pretend to want to have anything to do with open source? Is anybody going to buy this stuff, anyway? We wish Microsoft would just say what it means and drop the niceties. Here's what we'd like to read in the introduction of Microsoft's open source white paper. Remember, this is RCPU talking, not Microsoft, but it's how we suspect most people in Redmond feel:

"Frankly, Microsoft isn't a big fan of open source because it's a competitor and, like any business, we're not so fond of competitors. And frankly, we don't want to work with open source, Google, Apple, IBM or any of our other competitors because, like any company in any industry, we want customers to buy everything they possibly can from us and then upgrade it later on, or come back and buy it again and again. But we recognize that customers don't always do that (although we honestly can't figure out why, given how great our stuff is), so we'll open ourselves up to interoperability and cooperation to the extent that customers and partners demand it, and to the extent that we're not giving away intellectual property. We'd still like to see Linux go the way of OS/2, though, and we're going to do everything in our power to make that happen."

Of course, no company would come out with a statement like that, but wouldn't it be fun (and refreshing) if one did? All we're saying here is that Microsoft is in business to make money and not to pretend to care about open source, and there's nothing wrong with that. Talking about meeting customer demands is great, but buttering up open source with lawyer-vetted copy just seems silly. All the soft-pedaling coming out of Redmond feels stilted and disingenuous, and we really don't think it's necessary. Stop pretending, Microsoft. Just be what you are. It has worked pretty well for you so far.

What's your take on Microsoft and open source? Send it to lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on April 02, 2009 at 11:55 AM