MS plays the 'open source' card

The moral of this week's story: You can't have it both ways.The examples are many.

The moral of this week's story: You can't have it both ways.

The examples are many. Either a company is an open-source vendor or it isn't. Either a company is opening up its source code and programming interfaces or it is keeping them proprietary.

In recent weeks, Microsoft seems to have stepped up its attempts to capitalize on the gray area between open and closed. First, according to some developers close to the company, Microsoft was contemplating the idea of making its Windows CE source code available for free to embedded device vendors. Sources say Microsoft was planning to play that up as "opening up the Windows CE source code."

This week, Microsoft tried to play the open card yet again, it seems. According to various published news reports, Microsoft is promising the Department of Justice that it will open up its APIs and its Windows source code as conditions for settling its antitrust lawsuit. Does that mean Microsoft finally would be making good on vague executive promises made over the past year or two that it might make all or part of Windows open source? Don't count on it, say developers and current Windows source licensees.

Microsoft's not the only software vendor that has tried to hitch a free ride on the open-source bandwagon without playing by the open-source rules. Apple, Sun and America Online's Netscape arm all have gotten into hot water in this area in recent weeks.

Increasingly, software vendors are getting a virtual slap when they try to play fast and loose with open-source claims. But the real losers are the developers and users who believe that software companies slinging the "open" word all mean the same thing.

Eric Raymond, keeper of the Open Systems Initiative open-source definition, makes a good case for why users should demand a common terminology and set of criteria.

"If users want the reliability and other benefits of open source, they should join the hacker community in holding vendors up to strict scrutiny when they make claims of being 'open.' If we hold vendors to that standard, users and honest vendors will win. If we let dishonest vendors abuse or dilute the term and the concept behind it, users will lose and only the dishonest will gain."

It's hard to say if this kind of peer pressure will be enough to curb the trend toward misuse of the open-source label. A few vendors, such as IBM, admit they have been chastised into compliance. When IBM first began dabbling with developing Linux versions of its mainstay applications and moving some of its tools and components into open source, it received some strongly worded "constructive criticism" from open-source advocates over how it structured its licenses. But even Raymond admits that IBM seemingly has learned from its mistakes.

Will flames be enough of an incentive to stop Microsoft and Sun from profiting falsely from open source's growing popularity? If not, what else can and should be done to safeguard the meaning of open source? Talk back below and let me know what you think.