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How Microsoft invented open source, by Billg

Wouldn't it be great to wander round inside that head for an hour or so?

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The open source movement wouldn't exist without Microsoft, Bill Gates told his company's shareholder meeting earlier this week. Open source is also a follower, not an innovator, and destroys jobs, the economy and world peace (we made that last bit up).

Gates was responding to a question from the audience. The transcript doesn't say who it was, but the question itself makes you wonder how the blazes some Linux-loving hippy longhair got into the meeting in the first place:

"It appears to me that the open source movement is gaining momentum, and as I understand it the key to success of a software product involves efficiently building an ecosystem of developers and users, resellers, and so forth. Doesn't the open source model [offer] a more efficient paradigm for building such a community around your products, and isn't perhaps Microsoft maybe on the wrong side of that trend of long-term?"

Good heavens. Gates kicked off his response by claiming credit for building the environment in which open source could thrive: "The reason that you see open source there at all is because we came in and said there should be a platform that's identical with millions and millions of machines, and the BIOS of that should be open to everybody to use, and all the extensibility should be there."

Historians will note that this is absolutely not what Microsoft came in and said, if it can be deemed to have come in and said anything at all of significance, back in the early days.

Microsoft said it would produce an operating system for the IBM PC, and retained the rights to sell MS-DOS to other computer manufacturers. The openness of the bios would have been news to the IBM lawyers who spent the next few years busting illegal clones, and to the people working for outfits like Compaq who put such effort into developing clean IBM PC clones they couldn't bust. The companies who bought what Microsoft was saying at the time, that the platform was MS-DOS, not the IBM PC, will be scratching their heads over all those warehouses full of unsaleable MS-DOS computers they had, it having turned out that software was developed for the specific IBM platform, and not for all MS-DOS platforms after all.

To be fair, this early vision failure hurt Microsoft a little too, making roadkill of its first take on a spreadsheet, Multiplan. And to be even more fair, Bill may be making it up about what he was saying back in 1987-89, rather than 1981. But then he was saying first that OS/2 was the platform of the future (we still have the video clip), and subsequently performing strange dances involving Windows, NT, MIPS (remember ACE?), Alpha and IBM that ultimately left Wintel as last man standing. If he made a clear, single-platform statement of vision during that period we must have missed it, and that is surely our fault.

But back to this week's visions. Diplomatically, Bill says free software has a role: "We certainly accept free software as part of the software ecosystem. In fact, there's a very virtuous cycle where people do free things, some people find that adequate, sometimes companies will take that work and turn it into commercial products, those companies will hire people, pay taxes. And so you see the free software and the commercial software existing together."

There you have Bill's view of how the good free software movement should perform, tapping away at the creation of baseline "adequate" functionality so other people can - we hesitate to say 'steal' - it, develop it and make money out of it. Actually, if he'd just leave it at that he wouldn't be far off the way it operates in real life - people make money out of adding stuff, packing and distributing, support, installation and so forth. Fair enough, just work on the terminology, Bill. But he won't leave it at that, will he?

Enter the commie anarchists: "There is a particular approach that breaks the cycle called the GPL that is not worth getting into today, but I don't think there is much awareness about how so-called free software foundations designed that to break that cycle."

So free software was fine up until 1989, but then Vladimir Ilyich Stallman came up with the GNU GPL with the specific aim of breaking the virtuous cycle. Bill proceeds to get into it anyway.

"In the pre-software [transcript error, surely, should be free software] vision is that there would be no jobs in the software industry, there would be no testers, no engineers, no taxes paid, or anything of that notion. So I certainly don't agree with the full sort of free software foundation view that there should be no jobs in this area, and that the kind of commercial advances and risk taking that we've been able to do you can't get that, you can't get things like speech recognition on a tablet computer coming out of that paradigm. You can get things that follow along, you can get some smaller software, and so we embraced the idea of the free software paradigm and the commercial software paradigm moving forward in really a self-reinforcing way."

[Shareholders sing "Embrace and Extend" to tune of "Share and Enjoy" from The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, curtain] ®

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