[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website]
Microsoft has stirred up debate in the open source community by announcing that it will be submitting two licenses to the Open Source Initiative for approval.
Like the steps to sainthood, the process of having a license recognised can be long and hard, but fortunately it does not require proof of miraculous intervention, only conformity with the open source standards laid out by the OSI.
And the chances are that Microsoft’s licenses will join the New BSD License, the Eiffel Forum License the NASA Open Source Agreement and the rest of the fifty-nine different approved open source licenses listed on the OSI website.
Of course Microsoft is not endorsing the larger and more challenging free software philosophy of Richard Stallman, whose GNU General Public License (GPL) places more stringent conditions on the software it covers than they could ever accept.
As Stallman puts it, ‘open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users’ freedom’.
And Microsoft is not proposing to give away its software or assign the copyright to Stallman’s Free Software Foundation for the benefit of all, only to license it under terms that will allow others to see and modify the source code and distribute it freely.
But even so this is an interesting move, and shows that Bill Hilf, Microsoft’s open source evangelist, has made significant progress in encouraging the company to think about the positive aspects of engaging with the development community.
Some members of that community will, however, be less than impressed, mainly because over the years Microsoft has criticised free and open source software many times.
In 2000 CEO Steve Ballmer described the free Linux operating system as ‘communism’, and senior Microsoft staff continue to claim that it infringes Microsoft patents, although without actually specifying which technologies are involved. In 2004 Ballmer announced that Linux infringed 228 Microsoft patents; in 2007 company lawyer Brad Smith said it was 235.
Those who see only the machinations of a corporation intent on damaging free and open source software will therefore imagine this latest move as part of a complex game of corporate chess, where the open license knight moves closer to the free software king only to disguise the real attack, coming from the patent-carrying bishops hiding behind the pawns.
In this case the pawns are provided by Novell, a Linux distributor that struck a deal over patent infringement with Microsoft in 2006. The two agreed not to sue each other’s customers for patent infringement, and Novell agreed to give Microsoft a percentage of all its Linux revenue through 2011.
The problem with the Novell-Microsoft deal is that it implicitly acknowledges that there are patent infringements, something which has yet to be proven. By doing so, free software advocates argue, it may make business and even home users wary about using Linux and other free or open source software.
Yet we could read this another way, as part of an attempt by Microsoft to establish closer ties with a development community that is increasingly important in a networked world of web services and distributed applications. The company’s Chief Software Architect, Ray Ozzie, recently outlined plans for future development that rely on what he calls ‘Cloud’ internet services and adding online components to all applications.
Not even Microsoft imagines it can establish a monopoly in this new world, so working with the open source community and ensuring that different components from different providers will work together is increasingly important, and the new licenses make that more likely.
Microsoft’s increasing engagement is only part of a slowly-shifting realignment of the whole open source movement. The Open Source Initiative itself, founded in 1998, is beginning the process of changing from a self-renewing oligarchy into a membership organisation, having completed its work of providing a generally accepted definition of open source software.
However we should be wary of Microsoft’s larger ambitions, especially the clear desire to distance itself from the ideologically motivated ‘free software’ movement.
Any overt attack by Microsoft on Linux or the GNU General Public License that underpins its openness should be resisted by all those who understand that computer software is too important to the network society to be left solely in the hands of large companies, even ones that support open source.
We need Stallman’s free software movement to build the software that is shaping our lives just as much as we need the highly-paid programmers working for Apple, Microsoft, IBM and other companies.