14 February 2006

Microsoft and Open Source: Two Tales

One is about Microsoft joining with SugarCRM, which produces open source customer relation management software, "to enhance interoperability between their respective Windows Server and SugarCRM products." A key point of this "technical collaboration" is that SugarCRM becomes "the first commercial open source application vendor to adopt the Microsoft Community License."

The latter is an interesting beast. It forms one of several Shared Source Licenses - "Shared Source" being Microsoft's attempt to counter the good vibes and reap some of the proven benefits enjoyed by open source's development methodology. Despite its name hinting otherwise, the Microsoft Community License is not included in the official list of open source licences.

One of the most interesting documents to come out of the Shared Source initiative is called "Microsoft and Open Source". What it presents is Microsoft's public analysis of free software; particularly fascinating is the wedge that it attempts to drive between what it calls "commercial and non-commercial segments". The key paragraph is as follows:

A common misperception about software developed under the open source model is that a loosely-coupled group of distributed developers is creating the software being adopted by business. Although this is true for some smaller projects, the reality is that professional corporate teams or highly structured not-for-profit organizations are driving the production, testing, distribution, and support of the majority of the key OSS technologies.

What Microsoft's document fails to note is that those "professional corporate teams" and "highly structured not-for-profit organizations" are largely filled with hackers: the fact that they are in some cases receiving good salaries instead of the usual love and glory is neither here nor there. The hacker spirit is not tamed just because it wears a corporate hat (just ask Alan Cox).

What is interesting about this is that it shows Microsoft attempting to co-opt the bulk of open source as part of the commercial world, implicitly arguing that it is the commercialism, not the open sourceness that really counts when it comes to great coding. Microsoft, needless to say, has commercialism in abundance, and so - the fallacious syllogism implies - it must be knocking out some damn fine code.

More generally, Microsoft's continuing efforts to cozy up to open source - as with the SugarCRM announcement - are really just further attempts to blur the distinction between the two, to imply that it's six of one and half a dozen of the other, and so to diminish the attractive exoticism of what has hitherto been perceived as a radically different approach.

Which brings us to the second tale.

Daniel Robbins may not be the best-known name in the free software world, but his creation, the Gentoo GNU/Linux distribution, possesses an undeniable popularity - and a certain cachet, given its reputation as being not for the faint-hearted. So when he announced that he was joining Microsoft's new Linux and Open Source Lab in order to help the company "understand open source", there was a sharp intake of collective breath around the free software world.

The news that Robbins is now leaving Microsoft, less than a year after he joined, is therefore likely to produce some similarly audible sighs of relief from that community. Although it is not entirely clear what happened, it is not hard to guess that Microsoft's desire to understand open source was not with a view to entering upon a harmonious relationship between equals.

In other words, the two tales are but one: that Microsoft is applying its considerable corporate intelligence to the conundrum of open source - hitting it, probing it, squeezing it, stroking it, modelling it, copying it, engaging with it, even - to find out where are its edges, what it's made of, how it works; and how it might be defeated.

For all the sweet talk in Microsoft's open source document mentioned above, no one should be in any doubt about the company's real objectives in all this. Its view that open source is some crazy, anti-capitalist, crypto-communistic canker, though not expressed quite so vehemently in public, is surely just as deeply held in private by its core managers (though not necessarily but its coders) as it ever was. Everything else is just a story for the children.


Anonymous said...

A couple of questions occurred to me as I read the last para of this interesting post. Would you include Ray Ozzie as one of Microsoft's core managers? Do you think he shares this view of free/open source software?

Anonymous said...

crypto-communistic canker

Glyn, I like your style. Just for that alliteration I'm going to look up more of your posts.

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks - I knew reading all that Anglo-Saxon poetry would pay off in the end....

Glyn Moody said...

Andrew - that's an extremely good question.

In an attempt to answer it, I turned to what is probably the most important statement by Ozzie in recent months - at least of those that have seeped out of Microsoft.

His big memo on the Internet Services Disruption is well-written but full of rather facile boosterism - and, as far as I can tell, completely partisan. It seems to contain no acknowledgement of open source, let alone its merits.

This suggests to me that, shrewd as he is, Ozzie is very much among the core managers I mentioned.