Saturday, July 28, 2007

stating the obvious about Microsoft and Open Source

Microsoft has a web site that serves as a "gateway" to its ventures related to Open Source. Also, Microsoft will submit its "shared source" licenses to OSI. I've read some...questionable analysis about these overtures, so here's a helpful list of obvious points. I may be a little sloppy in confusing "open source" with "free software" (Stallman essay on the topic). I think it's a given that Microsoft is more open to open source concepts than free software concepts.
  • I don't have the numbers (nor do I care), but one obvious truth is that Microsoft earns obscene amounts of revenue from selling software, no matter what discounts it may offer in certain situations. It also benefits from customer inertia, because once a customer has started using particular software the cost of migrating off it can be steep. Naturally, many other software companies do the same. Now, the licensing of open source software makes this typical strategy much less viable. (Open source software can be redistributed by users, which drives down the selling-price, and open source software can be modified by users, which means they don't need to depend on the company for future releases or bug fixes). Hypothetically, if Microsoft moved to pure open-source licensing, it would lose truckloads of moola. Not a likely move. On the other hand, switching to an open source license for software which is free to acquire, like Java, makes more sense to software companies.
  • Microsoft is mind-blowingly massive. Again, an obvious point, but there it is. Microsoft has its hands in OS, office suites, databases, development tools, Web technology, media, video games (PC and console). It even makes mice, you know. Microsoft's massiveness means several things. First, that categorical statements about the quality of Microsoft's offerings are almost always over-generalizations. Saying that one will refuse to consider the (possible) technical merits of open sourced Microsoft code solely because it's from Microsoft is foolish and uninformed. Microsoft has some incredibly smart people whom I can only assume are worth more to Microsoft as real coders than figureheads. Refusing to consider the code based on ethical concerns or fear of patent litigation, well, that's different. Second, Microsoft's massiveness means that Microsoft can pick pieces to open up to varying extents while leaving the rest closed. Microsoft gains a few favorable public-relations nods, but keeps its identity. I imagine it will primarily open software on its periphery and in contexts that have a greater chance of being appreciated (open-sourcing a standard-document converter, for instance).
  • Executives at Microsoft have repeatedly denounced free software, on principle. Historically, Microsoft hasn't done much to grant its users additional privileges beyond, well, using. If it's taking steps in that general direction, expect those steps to be slow, rather forced, and accompanied by restatements of its stances.
  • Microsoft grows by expanding into apparently-profitable new markets. From this point of view, the open source software community represents yet another opportunity. Unfortunately, as a vocal and dominant player in proprietary software, Microsoft also happens to be a defining symbol in that community for what open source stands against. Personally, I believe that defining a viewpoint in terms of its opposite ("I'm not them, I'm something else!") is lame, and there's no shortage of other targets that fit the criterion "aggressively makes closed software". And at least one knows that Microsoft isn't illegally exploiting open source software like some others, considering mere interoperability is poorly supported.
  • Microsoft has a slew of competitors, some worrisome, some laughable. Those competitors have been starting to leverage open source, though perhaps more for public-relations' sake than in a hope to create better software. As product comparison checkboxes go, "connected to open source" has risen in importance. It helps to put customers a little more at ease and enhances the trustworthiness quotient of the company. The more other companies can check that box, the less desirable Microsoft seems. I think it's safe to assume Microsoft would rather compromise a tad on open source instead of losing market share.
  • When Microsoft dabbles in open source, it doesn't use the same open source licenses as everyone else. To be fair, it's not alone; as is their prerogative after some legal consulting, companies will create or modify an open source license when none of the licenses is exactly right. Nevertheless, why doesn't Microsoft just use the (myriad) OSI-approved licenses, which is an easier track to "official Open Source"? To me, this is the most significant indication of an underlying lack of sincerity. In using existing open source licenses, companies gain the stamp "Open Source". My impression of companies that craft new licenses for approval is that they are trying to reshape the stamp to fit them, not acknowledging the stamp for what it is.

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