Can the Microsoft cathedral really do business with the open-source bazaar?

It sounds like the "show-down" between Senior Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith and a panel of open-source backers at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) on March 25 didn't plow any new ground. But it did reopen the question: Are Microsoft's and the open-source community's opposing positions on patents a dealbreaker?

It sounds like the "show-down" between Senior Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith and a panel of open-source backers at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) on March 25 didn't plow any new ground.

Smith extended the same olive branch that Microsoft has been holding aloft, as of late. Open-source vendors noted that Microsoft's perceptions on patents and patent infringements is problematic for some of them, especially those building their businesses around the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Microsoft made a few more announcements timed to coincide with Smith's appearance, to demonstrate its ongoing commitments to collaborate and interoperate more closely with open-source developers.

Microsoft announced a deal with Sourcesense to create an Office Open XML version of Apache POI, a Java library. (POI, as SeekingAlpha blogger Dennis Byron noted, actually stands for "'Poor Obfuscation Implementation' referring to the fact that the 'old' Office file formats (.doc, .xls) seemed to be deliberately obfuscated.") Microsoft also added open-source business-intelligence vendor JasperSoft to the group of companies that are porting their open-source wares to Windows. And Microsoft delivered on its promise during its interoperability pledgefest last month to make more of its eXtensible Application Markup Language (XAML) documentation public.

But at the end of the day, Microsoft isn't budging when it comes to patents. It is standing by its claim that Linux and open-source software violate 235 of its patents. And it's not about to forego licensing fees for these patents, unless companies are promising to use them non-commercially.

InformationWeek captured the essence of the issue in its report on Smith's OSBC speech.

"James Bottomley, CTO SteelEye Technology and a Linux kernel developer, asked Smith how Linux developers could ever reach an agreement with Microsoft on patents, when the open source GPL license grants rights to use software to all downstream users from the issuer.

"'You've put your finger on one of the conundrums,' agreed Smith. 'We're a cathedral. A cathedral can do an agreement with another cathedral, but how does a cathedral do [an agreement with] a bazaar?'"

I'm not claiming Microsoft's stance is any less valid than that of the GPL backers. But you've got to wonder how much further Microsoft can go in its courting of open-source developers and customers given that it's drawn a line in the sand around its patent position.

What's your take? Does this gap in patent positioning mean that true interoperability between Microsoft and open-source software will be more perception than reality?