Call my bluff – how smart is reverse engineering .NET?

Besting or Boosting the Beast?

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So who's calling whose bluff? An intriguing game of chicken is enveloping Microsoft's plans to port its C# language and run-time to BSD, with software libre leaders vowing to give the Beast a taste of its own embrace n' extend medicine.

How wise this high profile and risky counter attack will prove to be, we shall examine in a moment. But first some background.

Last Wednesday, Microsoft said it would port its putative Java-killer C# to the free BSD OS, with Corel co-opted to play the Vichy role. Microsoft's investment in Corel specifies the option in some detail of the latter porting .NET to Linux, according to a SEC filing delightfully entitled Covenant Not To Sue, although Microsoft took pains to deny that .NET itself wouldn't be ported to BSD.

Linus Torvalds promptly fingered this as a classic example of divide and rule. Like world+dog, Microsoft has used much BSD-derived software without sharing the source code, which is why it likes its style of license so very much. By pointedly ignoring Linux, Microsoft proves that it really cares about the welfare of open source software, so long as its open source software Microsoft approves of... and that certainly doesn't include Linux. The Linux kernel uses the cancerous and Un-American GNU General Public License.

Now several strong hints are emerging that the best and brightest of software libre programmers are picking up the gauntlet. Eric Raymond told LinuxToday that it would be smart to "embrace and extend" the language and run-time, and encouraged hackers to reverse engineer the project, citing the SAMBA Project's shadowing of Microsoft's SMB file and print protocol as an example.

In the San Jose Mercury'sround table - which featured* Craig Mundie as a participant - Bruce Perens had this to say:-

"It is nice that you [Mundie] submitted C# and CLI to ECMA as a standard, so that we really could have a level playing field this time. Systems programming, of course, is what the Open Source folks do best, and they do it quickly. Keep your eyes open, some of my friends have had very busy fingers and will have an announcement for you shortly. I suspect your Shared Source implementation will turn out not to be necessary."

And heed the hint dropped by Gnome project leader Miguel de Icaza a couple of months ago, reported here.

de Icaza said ".NET's development environment was terrific - state of the art. He liked C# and has begun working in this environment. He believes there is growing interest in the open source community 'embracing and extending' .NET rather than competing with it."

Now we know better than to take impish Miguel's tribute at face value: this is a chap who turned up at LinuxWorld Expo a couple of years ago with his badge providing the job title "Peasant Farmer".

But it appears that several open source projects are underway to port .NET components - and C# is a core .NET component - to Linux.

Toxic emissions

Reverse engineering C# is a task that no doubt appeals enormously to hackers' traditional love of paradoxes. The Appeals Court last week provided a timely reminder of Project Cool's genesis: Microsoft's attempt to derail Java as a hardware neutral software platform.

The Court upheld the charge that Microsoft was guilty of anti-competitive behaviour with its attempt to deceive developers about the compatibility of Windows' VM, and coercing ISVs and Intel to promote the Microsoft VM.

The Court cited this exhibit, an email written in November 1996 Thomas Reardon mailed Ben Slivka (using Brad Silverberg's shift key-less keyboard):- "at this point its not good to create MORE noise around our win32 java classes. instead we should just quietly grow j++ share and assume that people will take more advantage of our classes without ever realizing they are building win32-only java apps."

Microsoft J++ was officially derailed by Sun's trademark dispute, and former Delphi project lead Anders Hejlsberg was tasked with creating a Java-like language with a genuine cross platform run-time component - Project Cool.

Now programming languages get created for all kinds of reasons - there's even one that was created solely as a satire of other programming languages.

But C# may be the first programming language as a guinea pig for its inventors marketing capers. We're not sure if this is quite what Anders Hejlsberg, creator of Borland Delphi, had in mind when he embarked on Project Cool.

Who dares wins?
Now if Microsoft wants to regain mindshare amongst young developers emerging from college with Linux and BSD experience, C# hasn't been quite the tool to do it. Although Giga Group rentaquote Rob Enderle told the Merc "[Microsoft] found a way to capture the next generation of programmers and get them excited with C#," it certainly hasn't happened yet.

In fact it's a risky strategy for the Open Sorcerers. If .NET isn't reverse engineered, it will surely remain a Microsoft-only platform, as even the best funded efforts to port Microsoft technology to non-Windows platforms in the past have remained at best, a niche option. But if a good implementation is produced, it has the effect of legitimizing the platform, and making much more attractive to conservative, non-committed corporate buyers. Which is certainly the last thing the Beast's foes want to see.

Now the best programmers love a challenge, but have been able to resist, most notably in the case of SDMI "challenge". Isn't lofty disdain a better option here, too? Do write and tell us. ®

* 'Participation' may just about a cover Mundie's involvement in the Merc's round table. Perens complained that he didn't answer any of his questions - which is true. Dan Gillmor raises an excellent point about Microsoft's expectation of academic research, which also went unanswered. The discussion is worth a read, if you've the time and patience. Due to some HTML strangeness, pages take between 15 and 40 seconds to retrieve here even on a fast broadband connection, and hopefully now that the discussion has concluded the Merc can put the entire transcript up as a single static HTML file.

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