Microsoft’s take on openness

Microsoft and open sourceRay Ozzie, Microsoft’s now famous chief software architect, told thousands of developers and customers that “transparency, standards and interoperability are key” at the company’s MIX conference, in March of 2008.

While this kind of bold statement of direction simply piggypacks on common sense, coming from the Remond giant, known to be the champion of secrecy, meticulous direspect of standards and engineered hurdles against straightforward interoperability, this kind of statement left most people wondering if they heard right.

After all, Microsoft’s multi-billion dollar business has been built on closed sourced code, non-standard formats and a paranoid race to accumulate patents, wether they made sense or not. So is Microsoft’s willingness to open up its heavily guarded gates genuine or is it just for show? According to many observers, the final word isn’t spoken yet.

Although Microsoft is used to playing the part of the bully in the proverbial software schoolyard, the open source movement is a hard target to intimidate. After all, everyone openly shares their findings (not wasting time trying to re-invent the wheel all the time), most coders work out of sheer passion and this means the development pace is downright impossible to match for a closed-source and rather slow moving software shop, however rich it is.

So why is Microsoft opening up, in the first place?

Two main reasons being that (1) customers want (and now require) it and (2) also to properly address the regulatory and competitive pressures against its “traditional” business model.

In the current market conditions, Microsoft clearly can’t beat open source so it must shift from being its demonized antagonist to become —against all odds— part of the trend. So that’s what Ray Ozzie is trying to do but in real life, making Microsoft a credible open source proponent is, by all means, akin to a Herculanean task.

Because it’s such a huge undertaking, Microsoft is moving on its own terms and at its own pace and predictably, this has made it an easy target for those who believe their “open source move” was just for show and changes nothing to their previous market domination plans.

In fact, despite Ray Ozzie’s cozy words, Microsoft continues to accuse open source developers of violating 235 of its patents. While those accusations are unsubstantiated, Microsoft’s threat of legal action still hangs over the developers’ heads — this doesn’t help the software behemoth’s image, at all.

So while Microsoft’s PR department is saying nice things about open source, the legal department is playing dirty with developers who are very highly regarded, worldwide. Saying that it’s a “profoundly inappropriate approach” would be a gross understatement.

So what’s Microsoft doing about its open source commitment?

Well, it introduced the Live Mesh strategy for synchronizing data across platforms and devices, which takes into account Adobe Flash, MacOS X, non-MS browsers and programming languages. Also, Microsoft has added cross-platform extensions to System Center Operations Manager 2007 which (finally) make it possible to manage Linux and Unix servers from MS’ flagship management platform. To do this, Microsoft is incorporating two open source components, WS-Management and OpenPegasus, into Operation Manager. It’s a 180-degree turn from the company’s legacy mindset.

While the US Justice Dept and the European Union‘s ruling (in 2001 and 2004) are (still) trying to get Microsoft to document and license its protocols, the open source movement is zipping away with an enormous momentum.

Microsoft’s Open Specification Promise is a legally binding assertion that it won’t enforce certain patents but longtime competitors know this might just be another strategy to force industry standards into its own mold, an approach known as “‘extend, embrace and extinguish”. If what Microsoft did to its proprietary extention to CSS and JavaScript is any indication of things to come regarding its open source stance, then we’re heading towards a great “open source deception”.

All in all, Microsoft still has a lot to understand about the open and participatory nature of the web — for everyone’s benefit, let’s hope they get it right, this time around.

Tags: microsoft, open source, patents, lawsuits, law, lawyers, developers, open standards, technologies, software, interoperability, integration, transparency, secrecy, closed-source, ray ozzie, linux, unix

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