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What Does Microsoft Want from Open Source?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are (or, we suppose, "is") back, and both personalities apparently work on open source messaging at Microsoft.

First, Microsoft slams Linux for breaking patents and shakes down Novell and lots of other Linux vendors for protection money; then, Microsoft gets all fuzzy with open source, issuing a sappy white paper about open source software (OSS) and now sponsoring a whole open source foundation aimed at bringing OSS folks and proprietary vendors together. (By the way, if you don't click on any other link in this edition of the newsletter, click on that last one. It's a fantastic story about the whole foundation thing.)

Redmond is expanding its CodePlex open source code site to become a whole "independent" CodePlex Foundation, led by soon-to-be-former Microsoft executive Sam Ramji, who was a big open source proponent inside the walls of Redmond, apparently. A bunch of vendors and personalities have signed on, but nobody yet whose presence would cause the casual observer to raise an eyebrow.  

As far as we can tell, most of what Microsoft does -- most of how it makes money -- revolves around a few basic principles:

  1. Public-image management. Don't let the bitter bloggers and jaded industry wonks fool you. Partners know that in the real world, Microsoft has one of the strongest brand names on the planet. Survey after survey confirms this. Microsoft likes it that way, and throwing a little love in the direction of OSS -- while not likely to win a lot of fans among the hardcore free-software set -- makes Microsoft look suitably magnanimous to the casual observer. For a convicted monopolist, anyway.

  2. Pragmatism. Let's let this word roam free a bit here. We're using it to describe everything from clever marketing to some of Microsoft's seedier deeds. Everybody remembers Microsoft's "investment" in Apple from some years back -- the one that staved off federal regulators from being even more on Microsoft's case than they already were at the time. That's the sort of thing we're talking about here; Microsoft has always been a pragmatic company, one willing to make moves to keep it on top that it probably doesn't want to make. There's some of that at work in this CodePlex Foundation. OSS is a reality for Microsoft; Linux is a real competitor, especially in the datacenter, and Firefox is eating away at Internet Explorer's market share. So, what is Microsoft doing? "Reaching out" (again) to the open source community as part of a realization that OSS is here to stay and that Microsoft might as well have some hand in it. Which leads us to our next principle...

  3. Control. This is what Microsoft wants more than anything else -- control of markets, of intellectual property, of software development. Redmond does not play well in teams, for the most part. It's an emperor, not part of a ruling junta. And we don't think that Microsoft has any real desire to play well with the open source movement, either, despite some of the (mixed) messages that have come out of Redmond in recent years. So, while Microsoft is saying all the right things about this new, "independent" foundation -- and while we're sure there probably are some genuine proponents of open source in the Greater Seattle area -- we're thinking that Microsoft sees the CodePlex Foundation as just one more way to keep an eye on OSS and OSS developers and make sure that Redmond continues to squelch open source in any way it can.

Cynical? Sure, and maybe we're off base. Maybe Microsoft really is embracing open source, really is changing its attitude and really does want to be part of the community. But we wouldn't bet on it.

What's your take on the relationship between Microsoft and open source? Send your thoughts to lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on September 15, 2009 at 11:55 AM