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Microsoft's overtures towards open source show just how scared it is

Comment To co-opt or coerce?
Thu Aug 02 2007, 13:39

THE VOLE is submitting its Shared Source licences to the Open Souce Initiative for certification, as announced in a keynote speech by Bill Hilf, Microsoft General Manager of Platform Strategy, on July 26 at the OSCON Open Source Convention held last week in Portland, Oregon.

This has been welcomed by some, including Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media that is the major sponsor of OSCON, and Matt Asay, among others, as a sign that Microsoft really does want to coexist and cooperate with Open Source software. However, the Vole's approach to OSI and Open Sauce in general deserves to be met with a shipload of skepticism.

Ever since the Halloween memo surfaced almost nine years ago, we've all known that Microsoft regards Open Source as a threat to its PC software monoculture and thus, its extremely lucrative business monopoly. Arguably, what we're seeing recently is the Vole executing its various strategies, some of which were outlined in that memo, to attack its Open Source competition. Seen in this light, Microsoft's approach to OSI seeking certification of its Shared Source licences is another prong of its strategy to maintain and extend its domination of microcomputer based software.

The evidence that Microsoft regards Open Source as its nemesis is overwhelming. Bill Gates has never retracted his antipathy to sharing source code that he expressed in his 1976 Open Letter to Hobbyists. Microsoft notoriously escaped US antitrust sanctions for strangling Netscape by bundling its competing Internet Explorer web-browser with Windows, but the EU nailed it several years later for similarly bundling its Media Player with Windows and failing to document its server protocols. More recently, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer, who once characterized Open Source as "a cancer", threatened companies with Microsoft's patent portfolio, claiming that Open Source products in various categories infringe 235 unspecified Microsoft patents, calling those alleged infringements "balance sheet liabilities".

Microsoft then followed up its threats with murky patent covenant deals struck with Novell, Xandros and Linspire, later even going so far as to deny it could be bound in those deals by GPLv3. Furthermore, Microsoft is fighting tooth and nail to maintain its monopoly on propriety Office document formats by pushing its closed OOXML "standard" in opposition to the transparent industry standard Open Document Format (ODF).

Considering the Vole's history of anticompetitive practices (DrDOS, Stac Electronics, Netscape, etc.), the antitrust cases in both the US and the EU, its rattling of vague patent threats against Open Source software, its attempts to subvert the GPL in recent deals with Novell, Xandros and Linspire, and its intransigence and aggressiveness in promoting its proprietary and opaque OOXML against ODF, a healthy skepticism about its intentions seems not only reasonable but necessary. Microsoft never does anything out of altruism, or even conforming to any sense of fair play in open competition.

It will be interesting to see if the Vole will succeed in gaining OSI certification of even one of its Shared Source licences (there are three - Permissive, Community and Reference - and it is not clear which one(s) will be submitted to OSI). A brief comparison of the least restrictive of Microsoft's Shared Source licences with the OSI criteria finds at least one apparent conflict. The description of the Microsoft Permissive License states:

"There is no obligation for licensees to publish any changes they make in either binary or source code form."

Indeed, the licence does not appear to require that the source code of derivative works be made available to users who receive binary copies of software products. So it appears that this conflicts with a major requirement for OSI approval, that is, the criterion that, if a derivative software work is distributed, the source code must be provided or made available. This is requirement "2. Source Code" of The Open Source Definition promulgated by the Open Source Initiative:

"The program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled form. Where some form of a product is not distributed with source code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source code for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably, downloading via the Internet without charge."

Note that this OSI criterion does not require that derivative works be distributed, but only that, if a derivative work is subsequently distributed, the source code must also be provided or at least made readily available.

Some might ask, does this matter? Well, with respect to requirement "2. Source Code", imagine that developers using Microsoft's Shared Source licenced code enhance it and then share it back with Microsoft. One can imagine that this would be difficult if not impossible to avoid if engaged in an iterative software development collaboration with Microsoft developers. Redistribution back to Microsoft would be on the same terms, as required by the Shared Source licence. Microsoft will then have no obligation, under the Shared Source licence, to publish or even make available the source code of any software product it later builds upon the work contributed by those Shared Source developers. The Shared Source licence thus can enable the Vole to appropriate such work by unpaid volunteers and sell any resulting proprietary Microsoft software products, without sharing that source code back with those developers or otherwise compensating them for their collaborative efforts.

Microsoft might also trip over requirement "8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product":

"The rights attached to the program must not depend on the program's being part of a particular software distribution. If the program is extracted from that distribution and used or distributed within the terms of the program's license, all parties to whom the program is redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted in conjunction with the original software distribution."

Similarly, Microsoft might in some instances run afoul of requirement "10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral":

"No provision of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or style of interface."

Open Source is built on trust, the positive trust of software developers that co-developers share common goals in each project and are not working at cross-purposes or trying to sabotage the community. How Microsoft thinks it can get away with threatening open source users (who are often also its own customers) with patent litigation, violating the spirit (if not the letter) of GPLv2 by compromising Linux vendors with payoffs and promises of future cooperation, denying any future obligations in those deals under GPLv3, attempting to steamroll and stonewall governments over server APIs and international industry standards bodies over OOXML, and yet hope to gain the approval of open source developers and OSI certification for its Shared Source licences, simply boggles one's sense of what's right and fair.

The IT industry landscape is littered with the dead dreams of people who once trusted Microsoft. Why anyone in the Open Source community should presume to trust it now passes all understanding.

Indeed, open source developers in general, and OSI in particular should, by this point, be sophisticated enough to realize and have negative trust in the fact that Microsoft wants to undermine, weaken, and ultimately destroy them. As Pamela Jones has rightly pointed out at Groklaw, this approach to OSI should be seen as Microsoft trying to work its "Embrace, Extend, Extinquish" model, attempting to seduce gullible developers and adulterate, twist and pervert the meaning of the term "open source" to its own ends. Like PJ said:

"...Microsoft is an Open Source company only if the earth actually is flat and the sun totally revolves around it after all."

To preserve the meaning and value of the term Open Source, OSI shouldn't fall for this ploy and let itself get sweet-talked into compromising its licence standards and thereby become co-opted by Microsoft.

However, OSI has made some changes in the makeup of its board of directors lately. In particular, Matt Asay, who was linked to above saying positive things about Microsoft's approach to OSI, is now on the OSI board. We'll just have to wait and see how this plays out. µ


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