Microsoft's motives in seeking open-source blessing

Microsoft wants to sup at the altar of the Open Source Initiative. But how can the OSI work with a company that has a innate, abiding antipathy to open source?

Glyn Moody has written a probing article in LinuxJournal asking a tough question: "Why is Microsoft seeking official blessing of its shared-source licenses?" It's not as if the company is hard-up for money, and getting Open Source Initiative approval for a few licenses is unlikely to further shareholder interests.

So, what gives?

In Glyn's view, the answer lies in what the move could help Microsoft do to open source: fracture it. While I'm not one for discrimination, I do believe that it's worth taking a closer look at Glyn's theory and keeping it in mind as the OSI reviews Microsoft's licenses.

Glyn suggests that Microsoft is looking for ways to embrace open source without appearing like a hypocrite. But its motives go deeper, as Glyn writes:

This, I think, goes to the heart of Microsoft's open source strategy. As well as adopting those aspects of an alternative development model that it finds useful, Microsoft is aiming to blunt the undeniable power of openness by hollowing it out. If OOXML is an open standard, and some of its own software licenses become OSI-approved, Microsoft will be able to claim that it, too, is an open standard, open source company. For many busy managers, subject to all kinds of demands - including increasing pressure to "go open source" - the difference between Microsoft's open source and real open source won't matter, in the same way that the difference between Microsoft's open file formats and those of the OpenDocument Format won't really matter. In terms of keeping people happy, what matters for many is the label - the appearance of going open - and Microsoft's moves aim to provide just that.

This seems like a reasonable theory to me. It's in Microsoft's interest to hold off any real change in its business or licensing models for as long as possible, and this strategy gives it cover. In addition, Glyn is surely right about how blase people can be about the open-source label - we spent nearly two years wading through various companies that called themselves open source, but were not. We still run into this.

My question, though, is what this means for the OSI, since I'm an OSI board member. I don't feel comfortable discriminating against Microsoft, whatever its intentions. It strikes me that given the emotions and stakes involved, any decision should meet a "strict scrutiny" standard of review.

What do you think? How can the OSI give Microsoft the chance without making open source a sham?

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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