Has Microsoft lost its war on open source?

Whatever dastardly plans Microsoft may have, open source proponents say it doesn't matter

Is Microsoft a friend or foe of open source? Going by the company's actions, Microsoft can't seem to decide whether to make love or war. But if it's war, Microsoft appears to lack the legal weaponry to defeat or even disturb its adversaries.

On one hand, Microsoft has extended an olive branch to the open source community, donating code to projects and backing big-name open source organizations like the Apache Software Foundation as part of an effort to do more than ever to acknowledge that it must work alongside open source, not fight it.

On the other, it has continued to seek payments for patents it holds that are found in open source technologies and in general uphold its proprietary intellectual property licensing strategy - the opposite of the philosophy behind open source. Microsoft has long held patent-infringement and possible litigation over the heads of open source vendors, at one time claiming that Linux infringed on more than 230 of its patents.

Whatever dastardly plans Microsoft may have in reserve, open source companies, developers, and proponents say it doesn't really matter. With open source a powerful business model and force in its own right, they are more secure than ever that the software giant poses no real threat to their movement.

It will take more than Microsoft to stop the momentum that open source - in particular Linux, which powers some of the largest networks in the world, including Google's - has in the market, they say.

"Is its future threatened? No. Open source isn't going anywhere," says Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk. Even if Microsoft were to assert all of the patents the company claims to hold in Linux and other open source projects -- which it would have a hard time doing -- it still could not stop developers from using open source tools and software nor stop companies from adopting open source business models, he adds.

"[Open source] is a style and an approach and a model that is here to stay," O'Grady says.

Real change at Microsoft in accepting open source

Most recently, Microsoft settled a patent-infringement case it filed against GPS device maker TomTom over patents that involved TomTom's implementation of Linux, a case that stirred up old feelings among open source companies that Microsoft plans to reignite a patent fight against them.

Microsoft insisted the TomTom suit was a patent issue and not any specific grievance against Linux or open source software.

Most of the Linux community accepted that assessment, but leaders such as Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, says that any patent litigation against a technology that involves open source will keep the community wary. "It's just another example in the mind of an open source developer that this is not a positive company to be jointly working on development projects with," he adds.

To be fair, Microsoft's stance on open source has changed remarkably over the last year or so, and at least a part of the company isn't trying to make open source go the way of the dinosaur, says RedMonk's O'Grady. This change is due mainly to Sam Ramji's Platform Strategy Group, formed a little over a year ago.

Part of the duty of the group, which Ramji leads, is to reverse the message of Microsoft's previous and infamous "Get the Facts" campaign, which aggressively tried to show customers the value proposition of deploying a Windows environment instead of Linux.

The group also is trying to prove that Microsoft is reversing its "us versus them" attitude about open source and convince customers that the two technologies are not mutually exclusive and in fact can even be complementary at times.

"Both Microsoft software and open source software exist within a larger industry context with numerous development approaches, licensing models, mixed IT environments, and the realities of a new economy," Ramji says. "We need to continue to ground ourselves in that context and acknowledge that open source software development is here to stay - including at Microsoft and among many people who develop with and use Microsoft technologies every day."

Ramji and his cohorts do indeed seem sincere about their efforts to support open source. In a first for the company, Microsoft actually has open source code in a product it acquired as part of its purchase of Powerset last July.

The HBase component of Powerset's product has open source code that Microsoft is actively redistributing back into the Apache Software Foundation's Hadoop project.

In addition to the Powerset code, Microsoft also for the first time in 2008 began contributing other code to open source projects. In July, Microsoft began providing code to a PHP project called ADOdb. PHP is an open source, freely available scripting language that developers widely use for Web development. Microsoft also has become a sponsor of Apache, which required the company to provide funding for the foundation.

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