US Report: Linux rebels strike back at world-beating Microsoft

The Linux community may not be the most genteel group ever assembled, but when it's war its members start fighting.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

And fight they did this week, with the "Halloween document" which was posted to the Web this past weekend by one of the open software's key movers and shakers, Eric Raymond. Raymond got his hands on an internal Microsoft white paper marked "confidential" and annotated it at length (which was only fair, considering how extensively Microsoft analyzed and quoted Raymond's well-known open software treatise called "The Cathedral and The Bazaar".

The memo, for anyone who may have missed the stories analyzing it earlier this week, is a lengthy examination of the current and potential impact of the open source software (OSS) movement on Microsoft, its products, and development methodologies in general.

Predictably Microsoft attempted to downplay the memo, calling it a routine technology analysis. But the damage had been done. Microsoft's strategy to corrupt standards via its infamous "embrace and extend" paradigm is out there, in black and white, for the whole world to read.

How can Microsoft beat Linux and other open software products? "Fold extended functionality into commodity protocols/services and create new protocols," recommends Vinod Valloppillil, Microsoft engineer and author of the document. This sounds innocuous enough until you stop for a moment and realize exactly what's at stake here. As the author himself explains: "By folding extended functionality (e.g. Storage+ in file systems, DAV/POD for networking) into today's commodity services, we raise the bar & change the rules of the game."

"Commodity" protocols/services, as Raymond points out in his annotation, can mean anything from TCP/IP and SMTP, to HTTP and NFS -- in other words, anything approved by a recognized standards body.

But there's more. Valloppillil provides more suggestions aimed at allowing Microsoft to recapture the developer ant hill. He suggests the company make its entry-level tools low-cost or free; make public parts of the Microsoft source code, such as parts of Microsoft's TCP/IP stack; challenge developers to work with Microsoft's acknowledged undocumented programming interfaces and system internals; and consider co-opting some new developer paradigms pioneered by the open software community, such as parallel debugging.

In order to adopt these recommendations, Microsoft would need to enact a major change in strategy. While the company claims to be licensing more liberally its operating-system source code to educational institutions, it is curtailing sharply its corporate source licenses, as evidenced by recent lawsuits brought by AT&T and Bristol Technology over Microsoft's alleged failure to comply with NT source license contracts. (Dan Neault, the overseer of NT source license deals at Microsoft, isn't nicknamed "Dr. No" for nothing.)

Microsoft would also need to change its motivation from one of a purely profit-making venture to one more focused on fostering collegial communities among developers in order to emulate the open software community.

As Tim O'Reilly, president of book publisher O'Reilly & Associates noted in an open letter to Microsoft which he penned this week, "the Open Source movement is an expression of the Western academic tradition, innovation and discovery through the free exchange of ideas ... Instead of trying to crush Open Source, you should follow the lead of companies like O'Reilly, IBM and Silicon Graphics, who are supporting various Open Source communities while finding ways to build commercial added-value products on the open platforms these communities provide."

Would/should the Linux backers let Microsoft into its clubhouse if it plead a change of heart? Or has Microsoft already gone too far astray from the community's principles to merit consideration for membership?

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