A prayer for Microsoft

Microsoft is not the problem; it is a symptom of the problem. The problem is patents, and the way forward is through cooperation, not finger-pointing.

Sunday morning, and I couldn't help but ponder Michael Tiemann's excellent note on Microsoft's revised (and improved) Open Specification Promise and "what Microsoft can do for open source."

Michael rightly notes that Microsoft's Promise, while certainly improved, still leaves much to be desired. No surprise there, which leads Michael to a thoughtful, probing analysis of what Microsoft could do to fully engage with open-source communities:

Let's think big. The open-source community already has more than a billion lines of source code at its disposal, and it's doubling every 12.5 months, so I think it's fair to say "we don't really need your code." And we also know that money alone is no substitute for the freedom to innovate that we so crave. So what big thing could we do with Microsoft's cooperation?

There are really four things on my list, but if they did only the first, it would be a meaningful start. The list is:

  1. Pursue the abolition of software patents with the same zeal they showed in their efforts to get OOXML approved as a standard.
  2. Unilaterally promise to not use the DMCA to maintain control of their Trusted Computing Platform.
  3. Transition to 100 percent open standards (as defined by the OSI, IETF, W3C, or the Digistan).
  4. Stop trying to maintain their monopolies by illegal, anticompetitive means.

These sound more like an ultimatum than a request for mutual action, but you get that in Michael's detailed discussion of these four items. In so doing, I think that Michael does an excellent job of demonstrating how to work with Microsoft:

Acknowledge where it's at, and look for constructive bridges between the open-source community and Microsoft. Nowhere is this more evident than in the suggestion that Microsoft and the open-source community work together in disarming our harmful software patent regime, rather than pointing fingers at Microsoft over its refusal to unilaterally disarm.

I also think this approach avoids the kind of self-righteous thinking that Mark Twain pillories in his exceptional "The War Prayer."

If you've never read "The War Prayer," I'd encourage you to do so now. It's only a page or two long, and it changed the way I think (and pray). It involves a stranger interrupting the earnest prayer of the people in a small town, praying for their country's victory in battle. Here's an excerpt:

"I come from the Throne--bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import--that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of--except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two--one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this--keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

Often, we don't truly want the consequences of what we want--we simply don't think through the consequences, and so we blindly demand things that end up being "prayers" of dual meaning. We demand that Microsoft be taken down, that open source crush it beneath the glory of our GPL and freedom.

But Microsoft is a symptom. Michael groks this, and his recommendations appropriately take this into account. Microsoft did not invent proprietary software. It may well benefit from proprietary lock-in, but is not the cause of it, and it's unreasonable to expect Microsoft to unilaterally disarm to the detriment of its shareholders.

No, our work is to change the industry, not the behavior of one of its participants. The place to start (and end?) is patents, which most everyone seems to hate, yet most everyone also seems to continue arming themselves with patents in a mad race to mutually assured destruction. A cold war, all over again.

In fostering a thaw, I hope that Michael and the OSI will take on an increased role. It's difficult to entrust this sort of lobbying to any one company, including a benevolent one like Red Hat. Some things are best done by nonprofits such as Mozilla, Eclipse, OSI, Open Invention Network, and the Linux Foundation. They don't have the same financial pressures that a public, profit-driven corporation must have.