Gates: GPL will eat your economy, but BSD's cool

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Bill Gates took another shot at the Open Source question last week, and came up with some interesting new spin. Essentially, if your country standardises on Linux, then you're not going to have any IT jobs in your country, says Bill.

Gates was taking some pre-vetted (we presume) questions at last week's Government Leaders Conference in Seattle, and had been asked about the strengths and weaknesses associated with the adoption of Open Source in governments. He'd already taken a pop at this subject in his introduction, and given that the questions overall were fairly skewed in the direction of IT in developing countries, it does rather look like Microsoft had decided it was going to ram the message home hard to the people it sees as its future growth area.

Here's what he had to say in the keynote:

"One thing that we get people discussing with us a lot is how to create jobs around IT activity. And I think you will see some countries who really believe in the capitalistic approach; that is, that software should generate jobs, and government R&D should generate jobs, so that government R&D should be done on a basis that it can be commercialized.

"There's a faction against that, the so-called general GPL source license free software foundation, that says that these other countries other than the U.S. should devote R&D dollars in the so-called open approach, that means you can never commercialize that software. And it is an interesting choice to deny -- for a country to deny itself the benefits of these high-paying jobs and the kind of taxes that let countries fund their universities, and fund general research that then goes to renew that pool of commercial R&D. Clearly there's an ecosystem there that has worked extremely well in the United States, and has probably been the unique thing that has let that push forward. And there is now a recognition that it's really a question of policy of allowing the so-called capitalistic approach to win the day there."

Microsoft's view of the GPL as some kind of plague, virally infecting everything it touches, is well-known. The company has outlawed it in its licence agreements, described it as a cancer, communistic, un-American, and now here's Bill putting a spin on that last one for the benefit of the reps of developing economies attending GLC. You think it's attractive because it's cheap and flexible? Well, if you want to carry on living in the pre-IT age, just you go ahead.

In his answer, Bill kicks off by misunderstanding the point of open source, and then misrepresents the kind of source access Microsoft offers:

"Well, there are many different aspects here. One question is: Do you need the source code of an operating system as a user of that operating system? That is, should you be paying your people to study the intricacies of how the operating system is built and stuff like that? And the basic answer is no. That's something that for a few percent of the price of the PC you can buy a commercial operating system, where all the work of testing it, supporting it, delivering it, is included for a few percent of that price of the PC.

"For customers who want source code -- universities, large customers -- we provide that. But 90- some percent of that time, that's more a -- okay, it's nice, I have it, you know, should I ever need it. That's fair. So source availability is not the big issue. That's -- you have got source availability from us and others, and it's not much needed in any case."

Microsoft's source access programs are of course very limited, 'look but don't touch' affairs, but may have some utility in the sense that teams of college kids could wind up helping Microsoft figure out what some of the stuff actually does. Ex Intel VP Steve McGeady's testimony for the current trial for example describes an incident where a team from Intel and one from Microsoft had to expend considerable effort doing this to get Intel's Indeo to work. This was while they were on the same side.

But back at the podium, Bill is drawing a clear line between freedom and Marxist insurgents:

"Then you get to the issue of who is going to be the most innovative. You know, will it be capitalism, or will it be just people working at night? There's always been a free software world. And you should understand Microsoft thinks free software is a great thing. Software written in universities should be free software. But it shouldn't be GPL software. GPL software is like this thing called Linux, where you can never commercialize anything around it; that is, it always has to be free. And, you know, that's just a philosophy. Some said philosophy wasn't around much anymore, but it's still there. And so that's where we part company."

He does however have some good words to say about BSD, which seems to have been deemed by Microsoft to be the non-threatening alternative that can be allowed to live. Not least because it's esoteric enough for the transcribers of his speech to get it wrong every time:

"We say there should be an eco-system so something like VSB [BSD], which is a free form of UNIX, but it's not - -doesn't have this GPL with it, versus Linux which does -- there's a big contrast. A government can fund research work on BFP [BSD], UNIX, and still have commercial companies in their country start off around that type of work. You know, technology policies like biotech -- you only -- if your universities are doing work that can be commercialized, you will have IT jobs in your country. And if they are not, then fine, just say that farming is your thing, or whatever it is. All the taxes will be paid by those guys or something -- I don't know. And the farmers will go home at night and work on the source code. (Laughter.)"

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of BSD (ESB?), we accept, but Bill is kind of saying it's perfectly reasonable for governments and universities to work it and Unix. But we expect he'll be singing a different tune if they take him at his word. ®

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