Microsoft seeks official 'open source' imprimatur

Redmond believes its "shared-source" licenses are worthy of the official open-source label.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
2 min read

For years Microsoft kept its "shared source" distinct from the broader open-source movement, but now the company is seeking official blessing for its work from the organization that bestows official open-source status.

The company said last week at the O'Reilly's Open Source Conference that it's submitting its shared-source licenses to the Open Source Initiative, which judges whether new licenses meet its criteria for listing. Increasingly, the organization also is trying to cut down on the number of open-source licenses, too, which is a problem for programmers who don't want legal obstacles in the way of source code sharing.

Jon Rosenberg, Microsoft's director of source programs, described the move on the company's open-source blog, Port 25. "Today, we reached another milestone with the decision to submit our open licenses to the OSI approval process, which, if the licenses are approved, should give the community additional confidence that the code we're sharing is truly open source," he announced.

It's got to be hard for a company as large and diverse as Microsoft to maintain a consistent position, but you can be forgiven if Microsoft's open-source course changes leave you dizzy. The company has been steadily engaging more and more with the open-source realm, although coming nowhere near to abandoning its proprietary software philosophy. But earlier this year, Chief Executive Steve Ballmer dropped its biggest FUD bomb, the accusation that Linux, OpenOffice.org and unspecified other open-source projects violate 235 Microsoft patents and the solicitation that open-source companies come to some licensing agreement. The move arguably undid years of bridge-building.

Rosenberg indicated that the open-source style has been gradually becoming more accepted within Microsoft. The company's first source-code-sharing project, the Windows Installer XML package released in 2004, "required the approval of our group vice president and a herd of lawyers," he said, but now such projects are relatively commonplace.

Rosenberg said that OSI and Microsoft need to work together. "Although open source at Microsoft and the OSI are two different animals, I would submit to you that both are at a point in their maturity where their constituencies need to become more involved to maintain growth." And he hinted at Microsoft's possible ambitions, pointing to OSI discussions of becoming more like a traditional industry organization with official participating members.

Without mentioning Microsoft by name, he suggested nobody would want to "vote the organization into the ground" because "such heavy-handedness would be self-defeating." Given the patent saber-rattling and resulting ill will, though, Microsoft's concern about self-defeating heavy-handedness apparently goes only so far.