Microsoft keeps its open source enemies close

Are the software giant's recent attempts to reach out to the open source community genuine or just another example of its embrace, extend and extinguish strategy?

At a conference sponsored by the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) in Maryland this spring, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith made what some called Microsoft's first public effort to reconcile with the open source world. There was, Smith said, a "broad panoply of software development models", and Microsoft was "going to have to figure out how to build some bridges between the various parts of our industry".

Microsoft might not be changing its development practices, but "bridges" were necessary "so that we all have the ability to collaborate with each other". He called for "some new rotations" in working together with the open-source community, sharing technology and intellectual property, and licensing.

The remarks were something of a shift for Microsoft, to put it mildly. The company at one time engaged in a high-profile smear campaign against the fundamentals of open-source development, with top executives criticising the GPL as "Pac-Man-like", "viral" and a "cancer". The GPL is perhaps the most popular open source licence, covering core software such as the Linux operating system kernel and the networking technology Samba.

This way of talking about open source set the tone for debate — not only was Microsoft going to compete with Linux, Apache and the like, it was going to wage a holy war against the whole "un-American" idea of "free software".

Smith isn't the only one who seems to be saying nice things about open source all of a sudden. Indeed, all of Redmond seems to be pitching in on the charm offensive, and not all of the effort is aimed at public relations. Could some sort of rapprochement be at hand? If so, industry observers say those benefiting the most could be customers, who have long been stuck in the crossfire while Microsoft and open-source companies battled it out.

The signs of a thaw have begun to add up. For instance, Microsoft has begun sponsoring and paying for space at open source conferences, as a way to make sure its side of the story is heard; these include LinuxWorld and the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC), of which it is a platinum sponsor.

At April's Microsoft Management Summit, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer took a significant step away from the company's long-standing emphasis on homogenous Windows application and server environments. Going forward, Ballmer said, Microsoft management tools would be dedicated to managing heterogeneity. "We grew up focussed in on Windows, managing Windows, taking care of Windows," Ballmer said in the keynote speech. "Today I want to mark essentially a step forward." The presentation included a demonstration involving Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advance Server 3. Newer Microsoft technical certifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Architect credential, cover a variety of tools and technologies, including open source.

Not long before the Management Summit, in late March, Ballmer secretly met with Red Hat's Matthew Szulik for more than an hour at a McCormick & Schmick's restaurant in New York, sources confirmed. The companies wouldn't comment on the meeting, but Microsoft chairman Bill Gates acknowledged the company is interested in talking to open source players. "There are some of those [open source] players that are looking at commercial-type revenues. We'll certainly spend time with those people to see what we have in common and what we can do for customers together," Gates said, adding he didn't consider it a "big, new development".

In early June, Michael Tiemann — who doubles as the president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and vice-president of open source affairs at Red Hat, acknowledged he too had been approached by Microsoft. Tiemann said the company wanted to start a "productive" conversation with Tiemann in his role as OSI president, and Tiemann agreed, though he hadn't yet met with Microsoft.

In another interesting move, in late May Microsoft hired Daniel Robbins, the founder and former chief architect of Gentoo Linux, one of the most popular and highly-regarded Linux distributions. Robbins revealed the move publicly in mid-June in a note to the Gentoo community, commenting he would be "helping Microsoft to understand open source and community-based projects". Robbins took on a programme manager role with Microsoft's Platform Strategy organisation, which includes a Linux and open source software technology group.

Microsoft has made a number of experiments in co-opting aspects of the open-source model, including the Shared Source initiative, which now has 20-odd programs and 1.5 million developers involved, according to Shared Source director Jason Matusow.

The company engages in a lot more shared or open source projects that aren't highlighted under the Shared Source programme, and Microsoft developers have recently begun calling attention to this fact. Josh Ledgard, a programme manager with the Visual Studio community team, recently called attention to shared or open source projects including the VBCommenter PowerToy, several Visual Studio.Net Academic Tools and Windows forms controls such as ColorPicker.Net.

The recent moves toward open source amount to an acknowledgement of the development model's right to exist, which is a step forward of a sort. "It's part of a realisation that Microsoft has come to, not least because it has a substantial body of internal advocates, that open source is neither a fad, nor likely to fade away in the foreseeable future," says Stephen O'Grady, a software analyst for RedMonk. "Given that, and a climate especially abroad that is pushing for openness, transparency, etc., it seems imperative that Microsoft at least forge working relationships with the organisations in question."

Outside of the open source world, Microsoft has made efforts to begin engaging with other former foes, a notable example being a detente with Sun in April 2004 that settled Sun's antitrust suit and led to deals to share patents and make sure that the companies' products interoperate. Microsoft has also settled antitrust matters with software maker, Novell and Time Warner's America Online.

Peaceful coexistence
Could it be, then that Microsoft is Linux's new best friend? Maybe not, but there are many practical reasons for the company to cool its rhetoric and begin a dialogue instead. One is the general climate, as O'Grady observes — in Europe, particularly, where Microsoft is involved in an ongoing antitrust appeal, the company has an interest in appearing to be less of a bully.

Andrew Morton, lead maintainer for the Linux production kernel, says such political factors seem to be getting in the way of business at Microsoft. "I've talked to a lot of people whose decision to move to open source was political and not economic," he says. "In other words, some people are avoiding Microsoft software as a matter of principle."

By far the biggest factor pushing toward dialogue is the increasingly heterogeneous reality of the enterprise. Linux accounts for about 23 percent of the revenue-producing server shipments, a figure that doesn't include the many installations of non-commercial Linux distributions, according to IDC. It even has a noticeable share of the desktop, with 2.6 percent of revenue-producing shipments. In the real world that means that nearly all enterprises are going to be running some mixture of Linux and Windows within three years, says RedMonk's principal analyst James Governor.

"That's the customer reality. Microsoft can whine about Linux or they can find ways of engaging with it," he says. Heterogeneous systems mean interoperability is a growing concern, and much of the talk from Redmond has aimed to reassure customers on this point.

The distinctions between open and closed source companies are breaking down, with nearly all software makers heading for a combination of both development models, and a mixture of business models. "It's all converging, it's not either-or. Even Microsoft is going to be using some open-source methods by default," says Governor.

Not that engagement is Microsoft's only response to the increasing prevalence of open source in the marketplace — the company's "Get the Facts" anti-Linux marketing campaign is also telling. "'Get the Facts' is an excellent indication that (Microsoft's) field sales force was running into open source left and right, and needed to respond," says Red Monk's O'Grady.

There is also support for open source within Microsoft, although Microsoft executives have flatly denied there is any "dissent" within the company, much less a "civil war", as once suggested by Red Hat's Tiemann. There are product groups within Microsoft that are genuinely enthusiastic about open source and others that are dramatically less so, according to industry observers.

Is it just a matter of time, then, before Microsoft relaxes enough to start porting core software such as Office or Outlook to Linux? There are plenty of reasons why such a move would be in Microsoft's best interests. In pure business terms, withholding support from a growing platform is simply handing competitors an opportunity, says O'Grady. And Microsoft's approach is increasingly out of step with the way technology is evolving. "A single-platform approach I think will become increasingly problematic as competitive, cross-platform alternatives mature and become more viable," Red Monk's O'Grady says.

That said, Microsoft shows no sign of actually making such a radical step, industry observers say — "Not in the near future, anyway," according to O'Grady.

Eric Raymond, a prominent figure in the open source community, says a release of Office for Linux isn't even that desirable, since alternatives such as StarOffice and are already available. "The important move would be to document all (Microsoft's) file formats and communications protocols, make the documentation publicly available, and make a binding promise not to sue or harass people who write open source software to interoperate," he says.

Other steps Microsoft could take to show it is genuinely willing to work alongside the open-source world could include better support for Firefox alongside of Internet Explorer, native support within Office for OASIS' OpenDocument standard, relaxing the company's stance on software patents, and a better attitude toward contributing to technical standards, say those in the industry.

Embrace, extend, extinguish
Microsoft hasn't exactly been backed into a corner by open-source competition, and there's another very good reason for the company to get on speaking terms with the open source world. That is, it could help the company compete, and eventually perhaps overcome the open-source adversary. "The best way to learn stuff is to engage with people, and if they wanted to have an intelligent debate they needed to take some of the heat out," says Governor. "That could be positive, in that they're reaching out and trying to convince people of their point of view. But the Microsoft playbook has always been embrace, extend and extinguish."

Those in the open source community have few illusions about Microsoft. Linus Torvalds has said he expects Microsoft's "conversations" to be mostly threats and positioning. And other open source leaders point out that along with all the pleasant conversation, Microsoft is continuing to do all it can to keep open source from getting ahead.

The company supports extending software patents in the EU, and unapologetically defends its right to use software patents as a weapon in the US. In releasing Windows communications protocols to competitors, as required by last year's European Commission antitrust ruling, Microsoft attached licensing conditions that block open source projects like Samba from using the protocols effectively. Microsoft has a track record of attempting to include its patented technology in technical standards.

Kernel maintainer Morton says such activities are "very telling indeed" and hasn't seen any change in Microsoft's real activities. "The strategy for Microsoft is obvious: work to dissipate the ill-will while not actually giving anything away," he says.

Eric Raymond calls software patents an "extremely serious" threat and calls other Microsoft practices, such as withholding communications protocols and injecting patented technology into open standards, "crash landings"; the rest is superficial public relations. "The open source community is not at war with Microsoft by choice, but only because Microsoft's overriding strategic objective is to crush threats to its monopoly, and the open source community is such a threat," Raymond says. "While that is still Microsoft's goal, peaceful coexistence is not really possible."

In the mean time, few believe Microsoft will be able to find a way to co-opt or extinguish open source. "Open source has a bright future. It's not going away," says analyst Governor. "That may be a reason for Microsoft to engage with it, but once you start doing this stuff, it's disruptive, it's not something you can control. There are too many open source threats to Microsoft to imagine there's one easy way they can wipe it out."