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Devil's Advocate: Why Microsoft should be happy about open source

Roll on Mono, not a monoculture
Written by Martin Brampton, Contributor

Roll on Mono, not a monoculture

Microsoft is betting billions and years of development on its .Net software framework. So, says Martin Brampton, it should be pleased open source is rising to the challenge...

Large organisations tend to buy technology from the biggest IT companies. For everyone, though, there are benefits to being sure that alternatives are available. The Mono project is a particularly interesting example of how open source is keeping Microsoft on its toes.

Mono was initially supported by Ximian, which is now part of Novell. It is well on the way to building an open source version of Microsoft's .Net development platform. This is only one part of the whole, somewhat diffuse, .Net programme but it is a particularly important one.

There are a number of reasons why open source is the only way to achieve something like this. Few, if any, companies have the resources to develop comprehensive software frameworks on the scale required. Even if they were able to do so, it is hard to see how they could achieve commercial success. Pricing is an extremely difficult problem. Microsoft is able to take a long view, using extremely aggressive pricing to gain market share, or to recoup costs through sales of its highly profitable operating systems.

Mostly, other vendors do not have this luxury and high pricing leads to low sales, while low pricing fails to generate enough revenue to repay development and marketing costs. Free software avoids these problems and the open source movement contains a large enough pool of talented and inventive people to create very sophisticated software.

Indeed, for such individuals, the route to success is nowadays more likely to be through the sale of skilled services rather than the sale of actual software. Proven skills obtained in the development of open source software are more highly valued by the market than the software itself. Officially, Microsoft often seems to see open source developers as an awkward squad, difficult to handle because a price of nothing cannot be undercut.

Yet both Microsoft itself and the customers who choose to depend heavily on Microsoft should welcome such developments. The .Net framework has often been seen as a bid by Microsoft to dominate the software market as more and more use is made of the internet to link systems. Whether or not this is so, it is inconceivable that we should finish up with a single company having exclusive control of key software elements.

An absolute monopoly would present enormous problems to Microsoft, to competition regulators and to the software buying community. Prudent buyers, even though they may have no intention of shifting their purchases elsewhere, always want to know that a shift is possible in principle. Having other groups developing a platform is therefore a highly desirable endorsement that should be universally welcomed.

Pure adoption of the .Net development framework also endorses a software trend that has been getting stronger for many years. Software is all about abstraction and the ideal for many developers is to be independent of the raw practicalities of processor and even operating system. Object orientation has steadily grown in strength, placing great emphasis on building models that reflect the problem domain while being minimally distorted by mundane practical considerations.

There is little in .Net that is original but Mono recognises that it is a well designed development platform that is capable of realising the goal of abstraction while leaving flexibility in the choice of development languages. It provides an object model that is capable of providing efficient fine grained interfaces in way that Corba could not. Combining this with cross platform capabilities is highly desirable.

Novell has neither the intention nor the ability to build the whole of Mono itself. It is relying on the open source development community for support. This is work that everyone, including Microsoft, should be applauding. It is in all our interests for it to succeed.

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