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Microsoft's Open Source White Paper

Like many large and powerful organizations, Microsoft as an institution can say a lot without actually saying much at all. In March, the company released a white paper on its relationship with open source. The bulk of the paper seems like a fair assessment of where Microsoft stands vis-à-vis the open source movement, but some of the content at the document's fringes further clouds -- rather than clarifies -- the company's position on open source software (OSS).

As Mary Jo Foley points out in her column this month ("For Microsoft, 'Open' Is the Hardest Word"), "Participation in a World of Choice: Perspectives on Open Source and Microsoft" has the feel of a document that's been decimated by lawyers-and a Microsoft spokesperson told Redmond that the paper was more than a year in the making. (Incidentally, the executive who authored the paper left Microsoft shortly after its publication to take a job outside the software industry.)

Open Source Olive Branch?
Given Microsoft's often-hostile attitude toward open source -- the company has famously saber-rattled in recent years about open source breaking hundreds of Microsoft patents -- the document is surprisingly conciliatory.

In fact, it's downright complimentary of open source in many passages, while subtly bashing it in others. And it contains some nuggets that, while not terribly specific, reveal that Microsoft might be softening its stance concerning OSS. For instance, the introduction notes that "OSS may complement Microsoft technologies, or even become a core part of Microsoft product group business and technical strategy."

Far from suggesting that Microsoft is out to destroy open source, that phrase, while suitably vague, suggests that Microsoft is considering making OSS a critical part of some of its products. That could signal a fairly significant strategy shift for a company that has long flown the flag of proprietary software and strict control of intellectual property (IP).

The word "patent," in fact, appears only one time in the paper, in a brief reference to Microsoft's Patent Pledge for Open Source Developers, which deals with patent relief for non-commercial development. There is, however, a reference to "[m]ore than 500 IP agreements with companies ... including companies building their businesses around OSS." The fact that Microsoft cites those deals -- which, presumably, include deals like the Novell SuSE Linux patent agreement-as an example of its openness might raise a few eyebrows among OSS fans.

Still, the meat of the paper makes a strong case for Microsoft as a company not hostile to open source. Rather, Redmond is portrayed as willing, and needing, to compete with OSS, but also willing in some cases to work with it and embrace some of its concepts. The document cites projects such as CodePlex -- a Microsoft open source hosting site -- and mentions contributions by Microsoft engineers to OSS applications. Also mentioned is System Center Operations Manager's use of OpenPegasus-an OSS technology-to interoperate with Unix and Linux. Those are all fair examples of Microsoft's pragmatic, if awkward, relationship with open source.

Hidden Digs
The document cites the publishing of thousands of APIs as part of the company's commitment to an "open ecosystem." It does not, however, mention the regulatory problems and huge fines the company ran into for not publishing certain APIs in the past.

Additionally, the paper takes time to pitch Windows Server's advantages over Linux alternatives and throw subtle jabs at OSS, such as: "Volunteer developers are highly motivated ... [while] tasks such as security debugging are more likely to require payment or incentives to developers." It's not necessarily an inaccurate statement, but it still leaves the takeaway that lots of OSS is buggy.

The heart of "Perspectives" presents a mostly fair and fairly thoughtful picture of the relationship between Microsoft and the open source world, even if there aren't too many specifics. It's not too patronizing of open source but also not too harsh on the concept. But the trimmings at the paper's outset and close suggest that Microsoft sees itself -- or wants to see itself -- as much more a part of the open source community than it really is.

Microsoft remains what it is, and what it should be: a company that makes buckets of money off of sales of proprietary software. In "Perspectives," Microsoft transparently tries too hard to be "cool" about open source and misses the mark. With its inconsistencies, instead of offering a clearer perspective on Microsoft's stance on open source, "Perspectives" manages to leave an even cloudier one.

About the Author

Lee Pender is the executive features editor of Redmond magazine. You can reach him at lpender@redmondmag.com or follow him on Twitter.

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