Microsoft's open source chief Matusow unplugged: A movement to the middle

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Jason Matusow. Matusow is Microsoft's chief strategist on the open source front.

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Jason Matusow. Matusow is Microsoft's chief strategist on the open source front. Since the interview, which took place on March 14, I've been sitting on the audio file as well as my notes feeling badly that it's been taking me so long to get this post finished. PC Forum, which is the best industry event I've been to in years, swallowed both me and Dan Farber whole. Now that I also had the chance to interview SpikeSource CEO Kim Polese (read the blog or just download the audio), I'm glad I waited.

Though, SpikeSource is primarily an open source play, Polese actually backed-up something that Matusow had to say in defense of Microsoft's shared-source approach: an approach that many open source advocates find to be insulting.

For starters, Microsoft may call what it does "shared-source," but it might be making a mistake -- inviting unnecessary heartache along the way -- by continuing to operate under that flag. The reason I say this is that, as the name of the program that Matusow heads, the moniker "shared source" is a legacy phrase that refers to a specific type of code-sharing which no longer applies to all the code that Microsoft shares. As it turns out, the program is more of a mixed source program. One one end of Microsoft's mixed source spectrum is source code still being shared under the old shared source rules. On the other is code that Microsoft has open sourced (and more, if you ask me, is likely to be on the way). And in the middle are various gradations of the two ends. But despite having more of a mixed source program, Matusow explains sticking with "shared source" like this:

The difference for us is that we felt very strongly that we knew that parts of our strategy were not going to meet open source and what the whole world was going to call open source. So instead of getting into a semantactical battle every other day, call it shared source and say "Look, we're not going to make decisions every day that the open source community is going to agree with." And truth to tell is that's not the most important issue. What's most important is that customers are having their needs met, partners are having opportunity built to go and spin off new businesses and build a greater ecosystem around the windows technologies, academics can do the work that they want to do, hobbyists can get to the interesting technologies. That's what matters to me. Not whether I can call it open or not.

In other words, Microsoft is tailoring its licensing programs on a per code-base basis based on a combination of what customers want and what's best for Microsoft. So, what does this have to do with what Polese said. Since she's in touch with enteprises that are deploying open source on a mission critical basis, I asked Polese whether or not open source license proliferation was as real a problem for end-users as some of members of the open source community claim it to be. Indeed, it's a lot of licenses (58 in total now) to keep track of if you're an end-user, but that's nothing compared to the number of commercial software licenses we've had to keep track of over the years. To be honest, I'm beginning to wonder whether the license proliferation issue is just a red herring for some folks to hang their hat on as they put the squeeze on companies like Sun that, in coming up with the the CDDL open source license, are engaged in the same balancing act (its business interests with customers' needs) that Microsoft appears to be engaged in. Sun, by the way, isn't alone. There are plenty of other vendor-specific open source licenses from companies like IBM and CA and no one crucified them.

Answered Ms. Polese: They're looking for the best tool for the job that they have. We hope to help them make intelligent decisions. We aim to help them do that by saying, "if you're trying to accomplish this task, we've evaluated this component, we've aggregated all the knowledge we can find about this component and this combination of components, and here's what we recommend if you're trying to get this particular task done.

In other words, customers are more interested in the solution that best gets the job done, period. If it means keeping track of another license, that doesn't appear to be an issue for the customers nor is it one for the recommendations that Polese might make. The best man for the job, as they say.

In the audio interview, which is available as both an MP3 download podand as a podcast that you can have downloaded to your system and/or MP3 player automatically (see ZDNet's podcasts: How to tune in), Matusow goes into great detail about how Microsoft worked closely with customer organizations like governments in order to strike the right balance that satisfied both vendor and customer. Matusow calls this balance, which Microsoft isn't alone in striking, a "movement to the middle." Said Matusow:

There's a move to the middle that's been underway for the past four years and I think that the strongest pressure behind that is the commercialization of open source that's driving that move the middle. What do I mean by move to the middle? I mean that if you look at the strategies being applied by companies ? take semantics out of it for a second ? whether its called open or not or called shared or not -- Apple didn't want to build an entire new operating system so they take a bunch of the FreeBSD technology, they layer on top if it their proprietary elements. Those elements that they've been working for UI for years and they make a very rapid move into the 32-bit operating system space. Real Networks with the Helix project: did they give away the core codecs ? the things that make their business possible that's the genuine unique value that they offer? No. But they did release a lot of the other source code under an open source license that allowed them to try and get more developer momentum. CA with Ingres. SAP with OpenDB. IBM with Eclipse and their Linux donations. All of these companies are clearly taking a look at what open source is going to mean for them and their business strategy and they're applying that.

Head of Microsoft's shared-source program, you can't help but expect declarations of how open source is a pinko-commie movement that will suck the life out of the technology business. Now, after listening to Matusow make his pitch -- a pitch, that like Polese's -- talks about what customers need and not what the open source community needs, I'm in their camp. If enough customers really need Microsoft's code to be open sourced, then they'll do as other customers have already done: they'll bring enough pressure to bear to change Microsoft's mind about whatever code-base is at issue. That said, Matusow still had plenty to say that I'm not sure that I agree with. For example, his argument for why open source is less secure than non-open source software.

Finally, Matusow, who just recently started blogging himself, knew coming into the interview that I would be putting him on the spot with questions that were posted by ZDNet's readers on a blog entry that announced the upcoming interview. Matusow studied those questions, and came fully prepared. Listen for his answers and use our Talkback feature to let us and him know what you think of his answers.