Microsoft and open source: Frost sightings in hell

In a guest post, Stephen Walli -- a software consultant specializing in open-source, and a former Microsoft program manager for the Shared Source implementation of the ECMA Common Language Infrastructure -- shares his two cents on Microsoft's recent open-source-related moves.

(This is a guest post by Stephen Walli, a software consultant specializing in open-source, and a former Microsoft program manager for the Shared Source implementation of the ECMA Common Language Infrastructure.)

Bill Hilf, Microsoft General Manager of Platform Strategy, announced two things last week at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference in Portland. First Microsoft will be taking two of its "Shared Source" branded licenses to the Open Source Initiative for approval as full fledged "open source" licenses. Second, they have built a web site to act as the gateway to Microsoft thinking on open source software.

I'm fairly ambivalent on the license announcement. Does the world really need two more vanity licenses? (No) Isn't Microsoft sort of late to the party? (Yes) Does it really matter if the OSI approves the licenses when they clearly meet the OSI open source definition? (No) As a global player will Microsoft update the licenses away from U.S. copyright language before submission, borrowing from the lessons learned in the free software world? (One could hope, but probably not. The legal team is too fearful.)

The web site is also a bit of an odd thing. It's no where near as rich in information or resource as the Shared Source site with it's deliberate ignorance of free and open source software. It's not as deep in materials as the old "Commercial Software Initiative" with its (possibly willful) misunderstandings about "open source and free software" licensing and commercial solutions. It's not as bright and bold as the "Get the Facts" campaign. But then it's new. Time will tell if Microsoft "gets it" and so gets the site right.

The "frost sightings" refer to something much more important that's been building that Bill pointed to in his keynote. Microsoft is finally joining the community.

I gave Hilf a hard time a year ago over the lack of real engagement in the community. Publishing licenses, signing partnership agreements with companies, and putting up web sites is not "doing open source". It's all about contribution in community. We forgive IBM no end of missteps (deliberate and otherwise) because at the end of the day they contribute software and lots of it. Hilf finally started talking about the code contributions Microsoft is making in his keynote.

Almost more important than the code, however, is the evolution of the understanding of software community. Read Lam's (short) post at the very least. He very clearly articulates how they will accept changes back now, and more importantly how they'll get to the better place in the future.

Rob Mensching's WiX project has been happily accepting changes back ever since it started in Spring 2004, but WiX isn't shipping on the core revenue stream. When we released Rotor in Spring 2002, we deliberately ignored the first two incredible contributions we received in the first 48 hours after release. Oddly enough, the community stopped contributing. It was willful on our part and we knew what the result would be, but frustrated as the Rotor team was there was no way past the concerns raised from above over IP taint at that time.

In Spring 2003, we discussed releasing the code base to Monad (the new PowerShell). The engine would be shipping on the Windows distribution, however, and this was immediately after the near Java injunction. If we released all the code, but only accepted changes outside the engine, concerns were raised that this might be too confusing coming from Microsoft. We passed up the chance. (To be clear, the Windows executive in charge really wanted to release it, but the Java injunction was too close and raw.)

Zander makes reference in his post to the pain of releasing IronPython. I've great confidence in that fact. Jim Huginin joined Microsoft as I was preparing to leave. I was part of the early discussions around licensing out IronPython and Jim was in the thick of it. It took them another year to get it out the door.

With the amount of software Developer Division is publishing as promiscuously as possible, we can only hope that the tipping point is being reached inside Microsoft when culturally they finally accept and embrace the greatest opportunity in their history to revitalize the Windows franchise.

Now we need to get Microsoft to say "free software" without gagging.

Read more from Walli on his blog, Once More Unto the Breach.


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