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Open-source fans mixed on Microsoft move

Open-source representatives are both warm and cool about Microsoft's move to share its documentation and interface, if not its patents.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Open-source fans can be a skeptical bunch, but I've seen their collective opinions shift--for example in the gradually diminishing loathing for Sun Microsystems as that company stopped deriding Linux and started moving its portfolio to open-source software.

So it's not a surprise that various representatives had a mixed reaction to Microsoft's move Thursday to share details of its technology with open-source programmers.

The move could make it easier for many projects to work well with Microsoft products and potentially replace them--for example the Thunderbird e-mail software could communicate better with Microsoft Exchange servers and also displace Microsoft Outlook on PCs. But Microsoft also made it clear that a pledge not to sue open-source programmers only applied in "non-commercial" contexts, so open-source fans didn't get everything they want.

And even though Microsoft said it now will share the specific list of patents it says it has on technology it wants to license to others--something open-source fans have sought once Microsoft asserted last year that Linux and other projects violate 235 patents--some see signing licenses as incompatible with open-source license requirements.

For its part, Microsoft is pledging to move beyond its historically adversarial treatment of the open-source realm. "As Microsoft takes this significant step forward into the interconnected world of the future, we aspire to doing so with members of the open source community by our side now and for the long haul," said Bill Hilf, Microsoft's general manager of platform strategy, on his blog. Hilf previously ran Microsoft's Linux lab and was an Linux deployment specialist at IBM.

I surveyed various companies and individuals about the move and received some other thoughts unsolicited. Here are some reactions:

• Jim Zemlin, Linux Foundation executive director: "The world of software development has been marching in a steady direction toward being open and transparent. As Linux's use continues to rise, so does the demand for customers to enable it to interoperate with Microsoft products. This announcement by Microsoft seems to indicate they want to participate in that march. Even if some of the announced details still seem less than ideal for open source developers, at least it's a first step."

• Michael Cunningham, Red Hat's general counsel: "Red Hat regards this most recent announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism. Three commitments by Microsoft would show that it really means what it is announcing today:

"Commit to open standards: Rather than pushing forward its proprietary, Windows-based formats for document processing, OOXML, Microsoft should embrace the existing ISO-approved, cross-platform industry standard for document processing, Open Document Format (ODF) at the International Standards Organization's meeting next week in Geneva...

"Commit to interoperability with open source: Instead of offering a patent license for its protocol information on the basis of licensing arrangements it knows are incompatible with the GPL (General Public License)--the world's most widely used open source software license--Microsoft should extend its Open Specification Promise to all of the interoperability information that it is announcing today will be made available...

"Commit to competition on a level playing field: Microsoft's announcement today appears carefully crafted to foreclose competition from the open-source community. How else can you explain a 'promise not to sue open-source developers' as long as they develop and distribute only 'non-commercial' implementations of interoperable products? This is simply disingenuous."

• Miguel de Icaza, founder of the GNOME project and a Novell programmer working on Mono, an open-source implementation of Microsoft's .Net software: "As a chess move, it is a fascinating one...On the surface it looks very good. (There are) lots of things that we want to interoperate with--Office, SQL Server, SharePoint. Getting the documentation to everyone sounds great, and it seems like they are serious about doing more interoperability work...When the full list for patents becomes available, the question is what will open-source vendors do if they find pieces that have historically infringed: will they choose to license and be the recipients of the community wrath, or will they hold their grounds and risk a lawsuit?"

• Jeremy Allison, a founder of the Samba open-source project: "The devil is in the details. If they can follow through with this, the world will be a better place...It doesn't mean any change for us (Samba) as we already had all these documents, and the promise not to sue is only for 'non-commercial' open source, which is a bit meaningless. At least everyone now gets access to the same info, which I'm very happy about. Hey, should we ask for our money back ? :-)."

• Matt Asay, vice president of business development for Alfresco and a writer for CNET's Blog Network: "The really big news is Microsoft's commitment to open APIs (application programming interfaces) and open protocols...It's great news, and it's big news. My company has been seeking this API and protocol information for months (years, really). But Microsoft's pledge doesn't obviate the need to negotiate patent royalties, if required, with the company."

• Andi Gutmans, a co-founder of Zend: "I have no doubt Microsoft is doing the right thing for their business. I believe Microsoft has finally understood that their closed nature has significantly hindered the growth of their ecosystem...Microsoft has had a strong Microsoft-centric ecosystem, but going down this path they are able to extend their applicable market beyond today's reach...I believe the PHP community can only benefit from this move. With PHP being a heterogeneous solution which works on pretty much any operating system, any database and any Web Server; the more interoperability capabilities it has with all open-source and proprietary solutions the better...Microsoft's all or nothing approach has been an accelerator for the adoption of open-source operating systems. While I am a big fan of Linux, I do believe that this is going to put an increasing amount of pressure on the Linux/Unix backers to deliver innovation and value on top of these systems."

Update 5:32 p.m.: I added commentary from Microsoft's Bill Hilf.