Why Microsoft is Being Nicer to Open Source

Emerging markets bring challenges to open source, and headaches for Microsoft


If there was any take-away I got from LinuxCon a couple of weeks ago, it was this: open source has finally become mainstream.

I mean, there was really little doubt. Companies and independent developers have been using open source for years now, with little regard to the old FUD that said "if you use this software, little Stallman-like demons will eat your soul!"

Or somesuch.

But the thing that really drove this home was when Eben Moglen, lawyer to the Free Software stars, described the subtle shift in how developers approach open source.

When open source first started, Moglen said, it was the developers and engineers who truly understood open source, and they were the personnel that would educate and teach others about the notions of free and open source software. This is certainly true, because it goes a long way to also explaining why this training and education took a while for business to understand, since business-types and engineering-types don't often communicate to each other very well.

But, when the light bulb went off for the businesspeople who were adoptiing open source as a development model or as an end product, it was these people who took over the job of educating customers and employees about the goodness of that which is open. And the engineers and developers did what they do best: went back to work coding and administering systems.

Now, though, there's a problem. Because while business people have the knowledge of open source, they are now in the position of having to teach developers who are new to open source--a complete reversal of they way things used to be, according to Moglen.

Open source has become so ubiquitous in the business world, it's now the engineers who need the training.

If it were just a matter of education, there wouldn't be an issue. But remember, these are now business, financial, and marketing people who have to teach engineers and developers about using open source. Without any disparagement on the intelligence of either party, it's safe to say that in matters of development, it's expected that businesspeople are going to think in broader strokes than developers will. And, when you are trying to pass along concepts like compliance and licensing, the details are very important.

Complicating this issue is the fact that many of these new-to-open-source developers are in countries where free and open source licenses may have to be applied differently, based on the laws of these nations. So, even if you can get some engineers in your US- or UK-based community to show the engineers in India or Nepal how its done, the difference in laws may trip them up.

Which is why I was pretty excited to see that the Software Freedom Law Center has just opened a branch office in India. On the surface, this is a small event, hardly worthy of a big article. But in truth, I think it represents a big step towards promoting free and open source in emerging markets and fostering more open source use.

I would also put forth the notion that open source's growth in these new markets is what is driving Microsoft to say "we love open source" with an attempt at a straight face.

The emerging markets (like the BRIC nations) are a huge potential market for Microsoft, and I believe Redmond is wisely not taking the FUD route on open source software in those markets. Why? Because open source already has some strong roots in the BRIC nations (heck, in Brazil, open source is the whole darn tree), and any attack on open source would be seen as a foreign company attacking local software projects. If Microsoft attacked open source publicly in this environment, a lot of potential customers and developers in those countries could react in a protectionist manner and start giving Microsoft the stink-eye.

The new SFLC branch in India is one more benchmark that says open source is growing and is definitely here to stay. Microsoft and other proprietary companies recognize this and, for now, are taking a much more soft-footed approach to free and open source software.

Let's see how long this lasts.

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