Microsoft resumes bashing open source

In a remark reminiscent of its more confrontational days, a Microsoft representative argues that pure open-source software companies can't sustain innovation.

Them's fightin' words!

That was my reaction when later last night I got the official Microsoft comment on my story about the Mozilla Foundation pumping new energy and funding into development of the Thunderbird e-mail software.

I'd asked about whether Microsoft was worried about competition from the project, given that Firefox has fared relatively well against Internet Explorer, and whether Microsoft would help Thunderbird programmers get their software working with Microsoft's Exchange e-mail server software.

What I got from Clint Patterson, public relations director for Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, went a couple notches beyond the "competition is healthy" category of platitudes I'd expected. Instead Patterson offered a broad criticism of open-source businesses that hark back to days of yore when top executives called the collaborative programming philosophy "un-American" and a "cancer."

"The open-source development model has yet to demonstrate the ability to support profitable software businesses that can drive the coordinated research and testing necessary to sustain innovation," Patterson said. "Many in the open-source software community have shifted to hybrid business models. They are making the same business decisions as any commercial software company in terms of what products and services to give away, what intellectual property to protect, how to generate revenue, and how to participate in the community."

It's true that there's a spectrum between fully open and fully proprietary; Microsoft deems it judicious to offer a few open-source projects, while companies at the other end such as Red Hat try to be as purely open-source as possible. Some are in the middle: Adobe has made some significant open-source moves, as with its Flex tool for Flash animation creation, while keeping its cash-cow Creative Suite firmly proprietary. Sun Microsystems, meanwhile, is in the process of moving its entire software suite into the open-source realm, with major portions such as Solaris and Java already moved.

But Matt Asay, vice president of business development at open-source document management company Alfresco (disclosure: Asay also is a blogger for CNET Networks), sees things differently from Patterson.

"The open-source community has actually been shifting away from hybrid models," he said, pointing to Alfresco, Funambol and MuleSource as examples. "Hybrid was yesterday's model, when people were still trying to get comfortable with the shift. Tomorrow's is 100 percent open, with 'proprietary services' on top."

Those services, Asay predicted, could be either for support, as in Red Hat's case, or as in Internet-hosed services--the kind of thing Yahoo is getting more serious about with its $350 million acquisition of open-source e-mail software maker Zimbra.