Open source vendors respond to MS 'attack'

Dressed uncommonly in suit and tie, the San Francisco native and full-time programmer attended Microsoft's presentation in New York City -- a seminar by Craig Mundie, Microsoft's senior vice president of advanced strategies -- partly on a fluke. "I stopped by on my way to the airport," he said from a cell phone, returning from a business trip to New York.

A seminar on the evils of the open-source movement, delivered by the movement's archrival -- Microsoft -- isn't the typical place one might run into someone in his shoes. Behlendorf is one of the creators of the Apache Server, arguably one of the most successful open-source projects in the commercial market, and partially responsible for the latest tirade by Microsoft against its grassroots competitors.

The Apache server, which grew out of an effort in 1995 to create a commercial-grade Web server based on open source code, has risen to become the most used Web server on the market. Out of more than 29 million Web sites polled in April by Netcraft, a research site, 62.55 per cent were running Apache compared to 20.64 per cent running Microsoft's Internet Information Server.

As did many others in the community of open-source developers, Behlendorf -- who said he has been "Microsoft free" for about six years now -- saw the latest attack on open source as an unsubstantiated one.

"Basically (Mundie) was painting a picture of the software industry with what Microsoft is doing as the right way to go and what the open-source community is doing as the wrong way to go," Behlendorf said. "I think he could have made the first point without making the second point."

It is not the first time Microsoft has lashed out against open source, a movement that grew out of the 1980s development community and in which code is shared freely and developers collaborate for the greater good of debugging and improving software. Microsoft executives have long been critical of the Linux operating system, a popular open-source software initiative that has lead to the creation of a number of mainstream companies such as Red Hat and VA Linux Systems. But Thursday, in front of a scholarly crowd at New York University's School of Business, Mundie delivered one of the most pointed attacks yet, attempting to deconstruct many of the fundamental aspects that have often been credited for open source's progress.

"We recognised that OSS (open source software) has some benefits, such as the fostering of community, improved feedback and augmented debugging... but there are significant drawbacks to OSS as well," Mundie said, in prepared remarks Microsoft released Thursday and posted on Microsoft's Web site. During his speech, Mundie didn't read from these prepared remarks, but his comments were in line with the prepared remarks.

The company used the highly-publicised event to tout its own philosophy of "shared source," a limited sharing of its proprietary source code. Critics argue Microsoft's vision of sharing is based on strict control similar to a non-disclosure agreement. But most of what came out of the presentation was Microsoft's official disdain for the GNU General Public License (GPL), the legal agreement under which hundreds of open source software is distributed. As well, Mundie detailed what he considers the potential pitfalls of freely-distributed code -- incompatibility, its threat to intellectual property and an all around bad business model.

"Microsoft is attempting to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the open source movement and the GNU GPL because it is threatened by the widespread adoption of Linux," wrote Lyle Ball, vice president of communications at open source software firm Lineo, in a public statement following Thursday's speech.

Ball's comments were echoed by many on Thursday. Jeremy Allison, a senior software engineer for VA Linux Systems Inc. and the co-creator of Samba, an open-source Windows file and print server that runs on a range of operating systems from Microsoft to Apple Computer, said in an interview that Mundie's speech was a further attempt by Microsoft to maintain what he considers the company's chokehold on the industry.

"In terms of what the speech is trying to achieve, it seems to entirely be about control," he said. "If they lose control of their underlying monopoly they become a regular software vendor."

Many of the open-source defenders interviewed said they were most unsettled by Microsoft's attack on the GPL, a document finalised in 1991 that has become somewhat of a constitution in the free-software space. Mundie said the rule of the license goes against intellectual-property protection and forces those who use it "to give away the fruits of their labour."

"The fact of the matter is that the GPL relies upon intellectual property law as much as any other software license out there," Behlendorf said, noting that there are a number of examples at major information technology vendors from IBM to Silicon Graphics that sell proprietary software and hardware with products based on the GPL.

Robin Gross, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation agreed. "The GPL is completely based upon copyright and relies heavily on copyright power," Gross said, who represents the San Francisco-based nonprofit on a number of civil-liberties cases. "If somebody violates the GPL they get sued under copyright laws."

But the collaborative efforts largely protected by good faith and the development community's interest in making a sound and low-cost product, is not good enough for the software giant. Microsoft said Thursday that it would only consider furthering its business with a model it believes will foster innovation while protecting intellectual property. Despite what Microsoft called a blip of success, open source isn't that model, Mundie said.

"Companies and investors need to focus on business models that can be sustainable over the long term in the real world economy," Mundie said in his prepared remarks. "As we've learned -- or really re-learned -- one can't build a business or our economic future on that type of flimsy foundation."

Despite stirring a strong debate, Microsoft didn't manage to convince some of its critics.

"Microsoft is trying to make economic arguments that just don't hold water," Behlendorf said. "The anecdotal evidence against them is overwhelming. It's not like we are going to see these companies disappear because of open source. They are just going to have to evolve."

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