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Microsoft, Oracle, and open source's double standard

Big vendors have been under fire recently for their open source-related activities, but what's really needed is patience.

Open-source advocates need to get their stories straight. Are we a big-tent movement, or a parochial club that is hell-bent on limiting membership...and efficacy? Unfortunately, it increasingly seems that the open-source community is determined to be the latter, and has taken positions on various events that are out of keeping with the founding principles of open source.

Take Microsoft. The company has long been a controversial figure in open source, as well as in the broader technology industry, and for good reason. Conviction for abusing monopoly power will do that to you.

But Microsoft has spent the past few years extending an olive branch to the open-source community, only to be criticized, questioned, and rebuffed. Last week the software giant created the CodePlex Foundation, designed "to enable the exchange of code and understanding among software companies and open-source communities." The foundation has assembled a solid core of directors and advisors, including Stephen Walli and Monty Widenius (formerly of MySQL).

"I don't believe it for a minute," thunders Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, speculating that "Microsoft doesn't mind stealing from open source, but any deals it makes are only good while there's a clear, short-term benefit to Microsoft." This is probably true, but it's equally true of every profit-seeking company on this planet, minus the emotionally-charged (and inaccurate) term "steal."

Do Google, IBM, SAP, Jive, MySQL, Red Hat, etc., use open source to advance their self-interest? You bet they do. They have a fiduciary duty to do exactly that. And do they selectively adopt open source without always contributing back? Of course.

Let's face it: no one--even open-source community contributors--writes open-source software purely out of the goodness of their hearts. This shouldn't be a surprise: open-source luminary Eric Raymond wrote about it over a decade ago.

But it's telling that Microsoft is the company singled out, more often than not. It is very likely that Microsoft could open source every line of its code and still be treated like a pariah by the open-source community.

Or, rather, by a vocal segment of that community. It's the part that doesn't have to meet a payroll. Perhaps the sort of person that Hugh MacLeod was referencing in a tweet he made: "It's easy to spot a purist. They're the ones without any skin in the game."

When your only job is to yell down others, you don't need to pay much attention to what you say.

But Microsoft isn't the only company to get pilloried. Oracle gets its fair share of abuse, too, and often enough on this blog. It seems that abuse is proportional to one's income statement, and the potential to abuse one's market position to the detriment of customers, as BusinessWeek recently wrote of Oracle.

Hence, ever since Oracle announced its intention to acquire Sun and, hence, MySQL, some within the open-source community have been wringing their hands at a frenetic pace. "Oracle will kill MySQL!" they moan.

Gartner rubbishes this concern, insisting that "the fact of the matter is (Oracle) cannot destroy the (MySQL) product." It's licensed under the GNU General Public License, after all, which preserves the freedom to fork the code. In fact, MySQL has been forked several times already.

This isn't to suggest that Oracle couldn't damage MySQL by slowing its development, or shutting down internal development altogether. Of course it could: Sun/MySQL employs the overwhelming majority of developers who write MySQL. To control them is to control the code.

But if there's any truth to open source's claims that it provides freedom (through the right to fork), then owning MySQL, the company, shouldn't be tantamount to owning MySQL, the code, and Monty Widenius, and others could merrily pick up where Oracle left off.

It's easy to spot a purist. They're the ones without any skin in the game.
--Hugh MacLeod, Gaping Void

That is, assuming we really believe open source is a liberating force. Do we?

I do. That's why I don't worry about Oracle's impact on MySQL. Heck, I figure Red Hat or someone would simply hire the MySQL engineers and start MySQL II if Oracle attempts to kill the project (which I don't think it has any intention to do).

It's also why I welcome, not reject, Microsoft's attempts to open itself to open source. Those with no skin in the game find it easy to point fingers and malign others' imperfect attempts to engage. They forget that it's hard for closed-source companies to open up, as SAP's Dirk Riehle writes, but with the incentives to open up increasingly visible, companies will find a way.

We should be encouraging them to do so, not second-guessing their every move. And we should recognize that there are times when the open-source alternative is not ready to displace a proprietary incumbent, as Esther Schindler notes, which means that we're going to need to learn to get along for many, many years.

I'm not suggesting that Microsoft or Oracle has been perfect. But don't believe that IBM, Red Hat, Alfresco, MySQL, or (insert vendor of choice) has been perfect, either. Each of us is making this up as we go along. Sometimes we screw up, but that doesn't mean it's intentional.