Open source leaders rebut Microsoft charge

Open source community spokesmen scratched their heads in distrust and disbelief over recent statements by a top Microsoft executive that the open source code movement "puts at risk the continued vitality of the independent software sector."

Open source community spokesmen scratched their heads in distrust and disbelief over recent statements by a top Microsoft executive that the open source code movement "puts at risk the continued vitality of the independent software sector."

Craig Mundie, Microsoft senior vice president of advanced strategies, said in a speech Thursday, May 3, at the New York University Stern School of Business, that the recent dot-com failures illustrated the shortsightedness of software developers giving away "the very thing they have produced that was of greatest value."

Many of his remarks were aimed at one of the licenses used in the open source community, the General Public License, that requires developers who use and modify open source code to give back to the community those modifications and additions. Such GPL licensing, Mundie claimed, represented a failed business model - one that must be discarded if software companies are to continue to exist in the future.

He offered in its place a Shared Source model, where Microsoft selectively shares its Windows source code with academic institutions and developers, but retains control over its intellectual property and commercial products.

Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly and Associates, the Sebastopol, Calif., computer book publisher with many open source titles, said: "Craig Mundie is dead right when he says that the next generation of Internet applications can only come about through development efforts from a wide-ranging group of companies and developers. And Microsoft's Shared Source philosophy is a clear vindication of open source - they're lining up to embrace and extend the open source development model."

But O'Reilly parted ways with Mundie on the issue of open source being open to random and destructive development, with no control over parties modifying an open source code product that is incompatible with the versions that have gone before.

"Mundie's contention that open source encourages code forking is a red herring. Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000 and ME [Millennium Edition] provide a more compelling example of 'unhealthy forking of a code base' than any open source project.

David Young, chief evangelist at Lutris Technologies, supplier of the open source application server, Enhydra, said Mundie focused on the GPL as the most general purpose open source license, with several more restrained versions also serving the community.

"We too had issues with the GPL," Young said. "We went to the Mozilla license [pioneered by Netscape Communications as it made its Navigator browser code public]. It extends any intellectual property added to the code to the user, provided the user uses it for some related purpose."

Thus, contributors to the process of developing a next-generation browser can produce their own version of the browser, but they can't add the browser to an operating system as a new combined product under their commercial brand, Young noted. "If they use the Mozilla open source code in another context, that's not allowed," he said.

One factor in favor of open source code, in the eyes of users, Young said, is that they own the source code of the products they are using that are built on open source. If a development team goes away or refuses to follow a channel of development that a company would like to pursue, it is free to do so on its own.

IBM has adopted the notion of Linux open source code as a base operating system for all of its servers, including mainframes. "IBM is doing the right thing. Microsoft is saying, 'IBM is going the wrong way,' and it's hurting everybody," Young noted.

In the process of disputing the open source code licensing practice, Microsoft "is doing open source developers a favor. It's raising the discussion to the IT [information technology] level. IT managers will conclude that if Microsoft is talking about open source code, it must be important."

Developer Jeremy Allison, senior engineer at VA Linux Systems, likewise challenged the basis for Microsoft's statements. Allison is the lead developer on Samba, an open source file exchange system that allows Linux servers to exchange files seamlessly with Windows NT and Windows 2000 servers.

With the recent release of Samba 2.2 to good reviews, Allison noted a change in Microsoft's stance from ignoring it to commenting that " 'you shouldn't use it.' They've definitely upped the propaganda war," Allison said.

While Microsoft is talking about selectively making its Windows source code available in the Share Source philosophy, "Microsoft understands how to maintain control. They are very selective about what they reveal," Allison said. "I think they're trying to counter something they see as a really big threat."