After years of speculation, Microsoft said last week it will submit its "shared-source" software licences to the Open Source Initiative, for approval as fully "open-source" licences.
Ironically, the move comes amid accelerating antagonism of the open-source industry via Microsoft's patent agreements with prominent open-source companies, highlighting the complexity of Microsoft's relationship with collaborative development models and the free-software movement.
Bill Hilf, Microsoft's general manager of platform strategy, made the announcement in a keynote speech at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (Oscon) in Portland, Oregon, on Thursday. The plans were also detailed by Jon Rosenberg, Microsoft's director of source programs, on Port 25, a website that's part of Microsoft's Open Source Software Lab.
Rosenberg described the move as the culmination of Microsoft's growing engagement with the open-source world, which he said started more than three years ago when Microsoft released Windows Installer XML on SourceForge, an open-source code-hosting site.
"Today, we reached another milestone with the decision to submit our open licences to the Open Source Initiative [OSI] approval process which, if the licences are approved, should give the community additional confidence that the code we're sharing is truly open source," Rosenberg said on the site.
Payback from the OSI
While Microsoft might be making overtures to the open-source mainstream, Rosenberg made it clear that the company expects the OSI to pay Microsoft for its generosity by making structural changes.
As the "flip side" of the licensing announcement, Rosenberg called on the OSI to change its structure to accept members from the IT industry who would be able to exert more control over the organisation's future.
Microsoft is willing to make use of certified open-source licences for its "shared-source" projects, which is a step toward giving the developer community a say in how the company evolves, and the OSI should be willing to do the same for its constituency by becoming a membership organisation, Rosenberg argued.
He said such a move would pose no real danger to the OSI — for example, from members attempting to sabotage the organisation. "Anyone considering an effort to 'vote the organisation into the ground' would surely realise that such heavy handedness would be self-defeating," Rosenberg wrote.
Rosenberg highlighted the fact that Microsoft hosts more than 175 projects on its CodePlex code-sharing site and that two of its "open licences" are used with more than 500 software projects.
However, such projects are typically relatively obscure, and Microsoft has never suggested it might use open-source licences for core products such as Windows or Office.
As early as October 2005, Microsoft met with the OSI board to discuss open-source certification for its "shared-source" licences.
The OSI and many prominent open-source industry figures have long encouraged Microsoft to make the move. In 2005, OSI board member Danese Cooper said the OSI "believes that the Open Source Definition can and should be applied equally to any licence with a bearing on source code".
In a blog post on Thursday, Tim O'Reilly, chief executive of O'Reilly Media and an open-source activist, said it would be "earthshaking" for Microsoft and for the software industry if...
...the licences were certified, making Microsoft's hundreds of "shared-source" projects open source.
"If this is suddenly certified as true open-source software, it will be a lot harder to draw a bright line between Microsoft and the open-source community," he wrote. "Open source has survived Microsoft's process of 'software Darwinism' and is becoming an ever-more important part of its thinking."
Microsoft's traditional approach to competition has been summarised as "embrace, extend, extinguish", and many industry observers see a similar strategy at play in the company's reaction to open source, with its decentralised development model and commoditising influence.
Even as it makes moves towards using certified open-source licences for some projects, the company has accelerated its effort to make open-source software projects and users liable to pay licensing fees to Microsoft via a wide-ranging patent strategy, according to Microsoft executives.
Microsoft argues that Linux and other open-source software violates hundreds of Microsoft patents, although it hasn't disclosed what those patents might be.
It has struck deals not to sue over those patents with open-source software companies such as Novell, Xandros and Linspire, and argues that developers and customers not covered by these deals are vulnerable to legal assault.
In mid-November 2006, shortly after the Novell pact was announced, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer said companies that sell or run Linux, but aren't covered under the Novell deal, were illegally using Microsoft's IP. "We believe every Linux customer basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability," he said.
The open-source companies on the receiving end of the deals have said the agreements are mainly about interoperability and don't imply any legal liability.
Earlier in July, Microsoft released documents related to the Linspire agreement specifying that software using the GPLv3 open-source licence isn't covered by the agreement, implying that users of upcoming versions of Samba and other software are violating Microsoft's intellectual property even if they buy their software from Linspire.