November 07, 2011, 11:51 AM — Last week, Microsoft contributed code to the Samba Project, and guess what? The world didn't end.
I know I'm coming in late to this party. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols laid into Microsoft pretty snarkily last week when the news first came out.
Vaughan-Nichols was right in pointing out that this was not just another open source code contribution: the enmity between Samba and Microsoft is near-legendary.
Many was the time I found myself hearing about that ruckus from one side or the other back in the mid-2000's when Samba specifically shifted to the GPLv3 license in order to prevent any patent finger-holds within Samba should Microsoft every decided to submit code to the project. It seemed pretty much an open secret back then that the GPLv3 was meant to act as Microsoft-repellant.
So, when I heard about the code contribution to Samba last week, you would have thought I would have joined the chorus of hell freezing over jokes.
But let's explore a radical idea: what if Microsoft is making an honest effort here?
I want to be very, very clear here: while not ignoring the past behavior of Microsoft, I believe there are people working within Microsoft who genuinely believe in the collaborative and innovative capabilities of free and open source software. This is very important to note, because I do not believe that it's fair to paint an entire organization with a sweeping brush and say its all about this or that.
That said, it is my belief some within Microsoft are embracing open source in a genuine way--but only as far as they can influence the projects in question to their benefit.
That sounds really sinister, doesn't it? Except, step back a second and look at every other commercial open source entity and you will realize that most of them are doing the exact same thing.
Google, Red Hat, SUSE Linux, Canonical… all big players in the open source community, and all of them trying to drive open source projects in a certain direction that benefit them. Not every project, of course, and not a completely dictatorial level of control… but the desire to influence some projects is very obvious.
So, in that vein, what's so different about Microsoft?
First, there's that past I mentioned: anyone who's spent any time working with Linux knows about the bad old days of Craig Mundie and Steve Ballmer taking idiotic pot-shots at Linux, free and open source software (FLOSS), and penguins in general. Heck, they still do, though not as much anymore since most people with any sense see these comments for the vapid trash-talk they are.
Then there's the even more current problem of Microsoft's legal division, which holds the vague threat of patent infringement over Linux, Android, and other open source projects like a Sword of Damocles. But here's the thing: I don't think that Microsoft is threatening to sue over alleged patent violation because Linux is open source--I think Microsoft would be making these threats if Linux were as proprietary as Windows.
In fact, I have long harbored the belief that it's because of FLOSS that Microsoft hasn't dropped the hammer on Linux to date. The lesson of SCO gave a full example of the rage and power of the FLOSS community when angered. Taking on Linux directly would be a PR and legal nightmare for Microsoft that they could not handle.
So how does the FLOSS community handle these open source overtures made by Microsoft and its employees?
It is a deep question without a clear answer. Open source is, by nature, open and inclusive, so barring contributions from a single vendor seems to be counter to the spirit of free and open source software development.
And yet, this is Microsoft, with all of the danger that company represents.
I do not have an answer, but I do think it's a question that the FLOSS community needs to really address, and soon. Microsoft has been a powerful enemy, but if the true power of open source is collaboration, should Microsoft's contributions continue to be mistrusted?
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