Microsoft and Open Source: Friends or Foes?

In the realm of computer software licensing, the question isn't whether or not one has to pay for program use and development. Rather, it's a matter of how you pay, and to whom and when.

And nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Microsoft's ongoing interoperability efforts as they relate to Linux platforms. Those endeavors have unleashed a renewed debate on open source vs. proprietary software.

Microsoft's Patent Deals
At the center of the current controversy is Microsoft's technical collaboration and patent agreements with Novell, Linspire, Xandros and other companies that use Linux technologies. The deals essentially protect users of those versions of Linux against any patent infringement lawsuits Microsoft might file.

The agreements have been extremely controversial in the open source software (OSS) community. A number of Linux companies have said they will not sign any such deals with Microsoft, and the companies that have made deals with Redmond have taken a lot of flak from OSS proponents.

Critics of the patent protection agreements include Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and champion of tech counterculture, who is best known as the author of the General Public License (GPL). The GPL licensing model brings creators and distributors of derivative open source works under one licensing umbrella.

Stallman and others have complained about Microsoft's perceived duplicity on the OSS front.

"The main obstacle to interoperability today is Microsoft, which often imposes deliberate incompatibility," Stallman stated in an e-mail. "The minuses of Windows are that it restricts you, spies on you, divides you from other users, and gives Microsoft the control over your computer. Any minor advantages Windows might have over (GNU/Linux) are insignificant by comparison."

In late July, Microsoft submitted its shared source license for approval by the Open Source Initiative and launched a Web site dedicated to OSS. However, OSS advocates believe that even as Microsoft indicates it is embracing the OSS development culture, it is still rattling its saber over patent infringements and clinging to the "traditional" proprietary software model.

Microsoft and GPLv3
Recently, both camps have practiced on- and off-the-record posturing and made strategic moves. For instance, the newly released General Public License Version 3 (GPLv3) included provisions to keep businesses that distribute open source software from extending patent protections to some users and not others. Microsoft countered by asserting that the license doesn't apply.

And how did the FSF respond?

"They backtracked on interoperability," explained Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, a San Jose-based technology research consultancy. "In a direct strategic response to the Microsoft/Novell deal, the FSF made modifications to the GPLv3 license that makes it very difficult for proprietary vendors like Microsoft and Tivo to use any open source software that's under that license."

Enderle added that if Microsoft chose to acknowledge the latest GPL, the Microsoft/Novell deal could possibly be grandfathered into the license since it happened before the GPLv3 was modified. However, the FSF's changes will make it difficult to do future deals of the same nature.

Meanwhile, Microsoft would not comment on GPLv3, which was released last month. Its spokespeople continue to stand by the July 5 statement that Microsoft "doesn't believe distribution of certificates for Novell support services, under our interoperability collaboration with Novell, constitutes acceptance of the GPLv3 license."

Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, believes that Microsoft would rather license than litigate. The Association is a Washington, D.C.- based think tank and lobbying shop that represents a wide swath of independent developers, small tech firms and Microsoft itself.

Furthermore, Reed surmises that Microsoft is cognizant of the fact that traditional channels of software distribution and implementation are beginning to dissipate, and that everyone -- Microsoft included -- needs to get on board and adapt. Changes, stemming from browser-based deployments, are afoot. Downloadable and customizable software, captured via the Web on an on-demand or subscription basis, will soon trump the "box and load" culture that has made Microsoft king, Reed said.

"I think that what we're seeing increasingly is an 'OS agnostic' atmosphere," he said. "There's a big marketplace for open source software these days and it doesn't come in a box. We are at the cusp of Web 2.0, and, increasingly, code isn't being written so it can sit on the shelf at Best Buy, especially not as it relates to the enterprise space."

Open Source Popularity Grows
Standout IT brands of today, such as Google and Wikipedia, are built on open source architecture. Moreover, open source methods are becoming more popular in the financial services industry and at e-tailing concerns. Even the public sector, specifically the National Security Agency with its Security-Enhanced Linux research initiative, is getting in on the act.

Still, the climate could grow more tenuous, with developers becoming squeamish about splicing Microsoft applications with a Linux OS. Enderle anticipates that some programmers and developers will balk on integration and choose sides, depending on which camp -- Linux or Microsoft -- blinks first.

"You do have to look at who is likely to litigate," Enderle said."The problem is that developers aren't attorneys and, particularly on the open source side, they often think they understand the related licenses and the extent of the risks."

Enderle thinks the real dangers for developers have less to do with being worried that OSS advocates or Microsoft will take them to court and more about "what happens if they, at some future point, want to protect something they have painstakingly developed."

Naturally, proponents of proprietary software are going to continue to posit that with open source, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, too many people with too much power and too many agendas that are too varied. The other side, of course, screams monopoly. Thus it really depends on the needs of the individual developer and/or corporation in determining what "interoperability" really means and how it is defined in a multiplatform processing environment.

As editor of TechEncyclopedia, Alan Freedman makes his living defining things. TechEncyclopedia provides computer terms and language content for more than 20 Web Sites. Freedman said that Microsoft brought the current brouhaha on itself.

"A distinct advantage of open source is that as long as there is even one remaining devoted contributor, the software will continue to be enhanced," Freedman said. "Now, just look at Vista -- it's a confusing mess that wasn't special at all. It's mostly eye candy with a few goodies sprinkled here and there. And although the Linux community is scattered with so many different distributions, it's hard to beat 'no cost' if you have to upgrade a thousand desktops."

Freedman joins many others in his lukewarm reception to Vista. Moreover, with Dell offering Linux-based PCs and with Linux being a major winner in the server market, it's no wonder that Microsoft is hedging its bets.

On the other hand, free software advocates can't discount the rift in thinking between mavericks such as Stallman -- who distances himself from the OSS camp, preferring to use the phrase "free software" -- and pure scientific thinkers along the lines of Linus Torvalds, the father of the Linux Kernel, who doesn't think much of GPLv3. Torvalds said as much in a discussion thread earlier this summer on the LKML (Linux Kernel Mailing List.)

"All I've heard are shrill voices about 'Tivoization' which I expressly think is OK and panicked worries about Novell-MS, which seem way overblown," Torvalds wrote. "And quite frankly, the argument seems to not so much be about the Novell deal, as about an excuse to push the GPLv3."

What Do OSS Developers Want?
Going forward, observers may do well to consider the survey technique used by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution in its May report titled, "A Developers Bill of Rights: What Open Source Developers Want in a Software License." In gathering data, the joint center divided up developers who use OSS into three groups: pragmatists (for the money), intellectuals (for the thrill) and philosophers (for the people).

The optimal outcome for both Microsoft and Linux OS evangelists will come as a result of practitioners leveraging a good representation of all three schools of thought. Most observers at both ends of the debate agree that Microsoft is here to stay. But there is still room for the type of free-wheeling, egalitarian thought process that birthed Linux.

In the end, there is definitely an opportunity cost in either direction. For instance, a more flexible OS may save on maintenance and implementation expenses, but it may also lose out in terms of compatibility with other programs. Conversely, adhering to patents and licensing and the slowdowns inevitably caused by the corporate culture can leave IT professionals drumming their thumbs waiting for the next patch, upgrade or version release.

When it comes to software, perceptions about freedom remain in the eye of the beholder.

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is a business consultant and an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others. He consulted for Deloitte & Touche LLP and was a business and world affairs commentator on ABC and CNN.