April 20, 2009, 10:30 AM — Is Microsoft a friend or foe of open source? Going by the company's actions, Microsoft can't seem to decide whether to make love or war. But if it's war, Microsoft appears to lack the legal weaponry to defeat or even disturb its adversaries.
On one hand, Microsoft has extended an olive branch to the open source community, donating code to projects and backing big-name open source organizations like the Apache Software Foundation as part of an effort to do more than ever to acknowledge that it must work alongside open source, not fight it.
On the other, it has continued to seek payments for patents it holds that are found in open source technologies and in general uphold its proprietary intellectual property licensing strategy -- the opposite of the philosophy behind open source. Microsoft has long held patent-infringement and possible litigation over the heads of open source vendors, at one time claiming that Linux infringed on more than 230 of its patents.
Whatever dastardly plans Microsoft may have in reserve, open source companies, developers, and proponents say it doesn't really matter. With open source a powerful business model and force in its own right, they are more secure than ever that the software giant poses no real threat to their movement.
It will take more than Microsoft to stop the momentum that open source -- in particular Linux, which powers some of the largest networks in the world, including Google's -- has in the market, they say.
"Is its future threatened? No. Open source isn't going anywhere," says Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk. Even if Microsoft were to assert all of the patents the company claims to hold in Linux and other open source projects -- which it would have a hard time doing -- it still could not stop developers from using open source tools and software nor stop companies from adopting open source business models, he adds. "[Open source] is a style and an approach and a model that is here to stay," O'Grady says.
Real change at Microsoft in accepting open source
Most recently, Microsoft settled a patent-infringement case it filed against GPS device maker TomTom over patents that involved TomTom's implementation of Linux, a case that stirred up old feelings among open source companies that Microsoft plans to reignite a patent fight against them. Microsoft insisted the TomTom suit was a patent issue and not any specific grievance against Linux or open source software.
Most of the Linux community accepted that assessment, but leaders such as Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, says that any patent litigation against a technology that involves open source will keep the community wary. "It's just another example in the mind of an open source developer that this is not a positive company to be jointly working on development projects with," he adds.
To be fair, Microsoft's stance on open source has changed remarkably over the last year or so, and at least a part of the company isn't trying to make open source go the way of the dinosaur, says RedMonk's O'Grady. This change is due mainly to Sam Ramji's Platform Strategy Group, formed a little over a year ago. Part of the duty of the group, which Ramji leads, is to reverse the message of Microsoft's previous and infamous "Get the Facts" campaign, which aggressively tried to show customers the value proposition of deploying a Windows environment instead of Linux.
The group also is trying to prove that Microsoft is reversing its "us versus them" attitude about open source and convince customers that the two technologies are not mutually exclusive and in fact can even be complementary at times. "Both Microsoft software and open source software exist within a larger industry context with numerous development approaches, licensing models, mixed IT environments, and the realities of a new economy," Ramji says. "We need to continue to ground ourselves in that context and acknowledge that open source software development is here to stay -- including at Microsoft and among many people who develop with and use Microsoft technologies every day."
Ramji and his cohorts do indeed seem sincere about their efforts to support open source. In a first for the company, Microsoft actually has open source code in a product it acquired as part of its purchase of Powerset last July. The HBase component of Powerset's product has open source code that Microsoft is actively redistributing back into the Apache Software Foundation's Hadoop project.
In addition to the Powerset code, Microsoft also for the first time in 2008 began contributing other code to open source projects. In July, Microsoft began providing code to a PHP project called ADOdb. PHP is an open source, freely available scripting language that developers widely use for Web development. Microsoft also has become a sponsor of Apache, which required the company to provide funding for the foundation.
Microsoft's mixed messages may hurt Microsoft more than open source
But cases like the TomTom suit and puzzling public-relations efforts -- like the release last year of a case study showing how purchasing Microsoft products instead of open source products gives customers a better return on their investment -- continue to show the company's conflicted attitude.
Such mixed messages may hurt Microsoft. "Microsoft has enough smart people at the company to know that the longer they delay taking advantage of open source, the more they jeopardize their position," says Andrew Updegrove, a partner and intellectual property attorney with Gesmer Updegrove and an outspoken advocate of open source.
He says Microsoft has an "unnatural advantage" in the marketplace because of the depth and the breadth of its customer base. "But they're going to lose that advantage because they are going to be too far behind everyone else in design, developers, and strategic thinking," he says. "They need to reverse polarity as soon as possible."
The popularity of Microsoft's software has always been driven by software developers, and Microsoft still has a loyal developer following. However, many developers prefer to work with open source technologies for a slew of reasons -- among them they don't have to wait for updates from a vendor to make bug fixes, and the fact that many open source tools are freely available as part of community projects.
If Microsoft continues to flip-flop on open source, it could stymie its ability to keep developers in its corner, as well as hurt the company's ability to keep up with a rapidly innovating market. "There is a constant demand for better ways to do things, better ways to compete, and the innovation that meets this demand typically never comes from a large organization," says Joe Lindsay, vice president of engineering for interactive media firm Brand Affinity Technologies and a longtime user of both proprietary and open source software. "Innovation happens in smaller organizations, and those organizations use the tools that give them the most options, power, or freedom to innovate. These ideas used to be commercialized by large companies, but that is no longer necessary for virtual products like software."
Lindsay says that Microsoft's strength has always been making innovation accessible to the average user rather than being a great innovator itself. But continuing to keep a tight hold on licensing its code could weaken even that strength, he says. "Microsoft does not sell software that lets folks freely innovate; it sells software that lets folks innovate after paying Microsoft for Microsoft software and requires users of the innovation to pay Microsoft as well," he says. "It is a great annuity for Microsoft, but a cumbersome liability for the innovator and his users."
Why Microsoft may remain conflicted about open source
Even if Microsoft's intentions toward open source -- particularly those of Ramji's organization -- are good, several factors will limit the company's ability to act on those intentions. For example, Ramji's hands are tied as to what he can do to promote open source and free up Microsoft's licensing restrictions because not all of the company is totally on board with his efforts.
And because Microsoft's revenue relies on proprietary software, supporting open source -- although necessary in some respects -- is fundamentally a paradox for the company, says Eric Raymond, an Internet developer and open source advocate who co-founded the Open Source Initiative.
Raymond says Microsoft will have a hard time reversing some of its proprietary strategies now, because much of its revenue is based on products like Windows and Office that are a de facto standard in the market and can be controlled only because they are closed source. Raymond says this sort of business model limits anyone, even Ramji and his organization, who is trying to change Microsoft's attitude toward open source. "He can be open only where it doesn't affect Microsoft's control of the customer base, and he can't be open anywhere that it might," Raymond notes.
For its part, Microsoft seems to think it can continue to balance its interest in protecting its intellectual property -- which the company sees as the key to innovation both for closed source and open source companies -- with its newfound interest in coexisting peacefully with open source competitors.
"Microsoft respects and appreciates the great contribution that open source developers make in our industry. ... However, partnership with all software companies, including those commercializing open source technologies, must be built on mutual respect for IP [intellectual property] rights," Ramji says. "All industry players must play by the same rules. Companies who distribute open source software also litigate to protect their IP, when they believe it is necessary to do so."
Even if Microsoft can no longer dislodge open source, it can still conduct skirmishes when its interests are threatened. But the open source community is now strong enough to fight back.