Mundie: 'Open Source isn't the issue'

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Leaders of the Open Source community gathered in San Diego last week, and various panels discussed everything from Apache to Linux to XML during the week. The most anticipated events, however, were the keynotes and panel discussions featuring Microsoft v.p. Craig Mundie and Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann.
"Open Source isn't the issue."

That five-word sentence was included among the comments Craig Mundie made Thursday at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. Mundie made headlines earlier this year during a speech at New York University, when he labeled Open Source software as potentially weak and unstable, and capable of hindering business. While indeed, a few seconds later, he closed in on the GNU Public License as what Microsoft had issues with, many in the Open Source community came away with the impression that the company had attempted to use a guilt-by-association strategy.

A month later, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer further fanned the flames, telling a Chicago Sun-Time reporter that "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way that the license works."

That first sensational sentence was repeated far and wide, and sometimes even the second sentence was included. But Ballmer didn't actually mention the GPL, leaving readers to believe that some nebulous Linux license boogeyman would come along in the middle of the night and devour their intellectual property.

While Microsoft has been busy insisting it only has issues with the GPL, it does appear that the company's representatives are trying to be as vague as possible when speaking to the mainstream press. Only when confronted by people within the Open Source, or even the broader technology communities, do they clarify their statements to include the GPL.

It would appear, indeed, that Open Source is very much what Microsoft considers to be the issue.

Mundie talked in soothing tones about how Microsoft considers the software industry to be a worldwide ecosystem, and how the company considers Open Source to be a part of that ecosystem. One jaded conference veteran commented that ecosystems usually include food chains, and that it might be interesting to see where Microsoft would place itself and Open Source within that chain.

Comments aside, Mundie made no attacks on Open Source or GPL, perhaps not such a bad strategy, considering the theme of the event.

Next on the stage to deliver his keynote was Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann, who took off his gloves after telling Mundie that he was "very brave" for attending the conference.

Tiemann provided quite a few choice quotes regarding Microsoft' plans. For the Windows CE "shared-source" model, Tiemann said: "This has nothing to do with building a community outside of Microsoft. It's a treaty for Microsoft, trying to quell its own civil war."

On Microsoft's prohibition on some of its licenses that restrict developers from using the GPL's "viral" software: "If I look at Microsoft software, I'm infected."

Many participants -- not to mention reporters for other news sites -- thought the debate was much ado about nothing, sort of an anti-climax. Nothing new seemed to be said, just older arguments rehashed for an appreciative audience. Later question-and-answer sessions seemed to be more productive.

The first question, regarding Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's comments on Open Source being a virus, was fielded by Mundie. What his boss meant to say, said Mundie, wasn't that Open Source as a whole was viral, just the GPL. This revision of Ballmer's remarks did little to mollify the irritation they caused, and Perl author Larry Wall spoke up.

"I was a little bothered when Microsoft, or one part of Microsoft labels Perl's artistic license as potentially viral," said Wall, explaining that he had written Perl's license as an antidote to the GPL. Since Microsoft was revising the statements of its executives to hone in on a single license, was there any chance the company might also refine its software licenses so that users knew exactly what it considered to be "viral"?

"I'm not exactly sure which licenses you're referring to," answered Mundie. "We're educating ourselves in the process of having this dialogue. I think you'll see us be as precise and concise as possible."

At this point, Open Source advocate Bruce Perens asked if it would be possible to have Windows CE's new shared-source license retroactively applied to Microsoft's Mobile Internet Toolkit, a set of programming tools for creating Windows CE and other mobile/handheld applications. Currently, developers must adhere to a license that prohibits the use of "viral software" when using the Mobile Internet Toolkit. Perens asked, if not a new license, could Microsoft at least do a better job of explaining what it considers "viral"?

"You could use Perl even as a development tool, you could use GNU make as a development tool under the Mobile Internet Toolkit license," said Perens. "That certainly needs improvement if development shops are to strictly segregate Open Source software from Microsoft software, which doesn't sound productive."

Mundie said that was something that Microsoft might consider doing, but he added that the company is stuck between a rock and a hard place in revising its multitude of licenses. "We're always on the horns of a dilemma between trying to be more and more definitive, which means [the licenses] get more complicated, and making them simple, but leaving ambiguity. In this case, we're trying to be more precise about what we're not willing to give away, or have any questions about whether it would be transiently given away."

So, is it possible that Microsoft can learn to live with Open Source, or at least agree to disagree with the GPL, but without verbally knifing it at every opportunity? Will the company make any changes to its current licenses to accommodate Open Source, or at least provide confused developers with some better explanations? It's too early to tell, and anyone who expected solid commitments this week will likely leave San Diego empty-handed.

So what, exactly, transpired here?

When asked how he would summarize the dialogue that was opened at the San Diego conference, Mundie replied that it was good to have started a conversation between Microsoft and the Open Source community. Ultimately, he thinks it will help both parties come to a better understanding of each other.

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