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What Does Microsoft Have to Do to Earn FOSSers' Respect?

By Jack M. Germain
Jun 5, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Microsoft may not have fully endeared itself into the FOSS rank and file with its recent attempt to hold hands with the open source community. Feelings are not unanimous regarding the commercial software giant's decision in April to front a company-owned subsidiary called "Microsoft Open Technologies."

What Does Microsoft Have to Do to Earn FOSSers' Respect?

The subsidiary's stated purpose is to advance Microsoft's investment in open source software. That includes code interoperability and open standards.

Remember that line about being wary of Greeks bearing gifts? That lesson from Vergil's Aeneid could very well sum up the reaction from certain parts of the FOSS community.

Pity poor Microsoft. When it comes to cozying up to its FOSS friends, the commercial software giant seems to be damned if it does and damned if it doesn't -- contribute more openly to the development of Linux-based code, that is. Still, Microsoft remains among the top 20 Linux kernel contributors, according to several lists of big gun Linux givers in various industry reports.

Many FOSS diehards view dedication to the advancement of free software as akin to practicing religious dogma. You are a follower out of love. Rather than being a true believer, Microsoft may only have a spark of interest in open source to ignite its own customer base to remain Windows users with crossover Linux applications.

"The simple truth is that Linux has reached such a state of ubiquity [and] Microsoft is having to adapt to the collaborative development model that has become so pervasive in the software industry. The company that once called Linux a cancer today is using the OS to support its virtualization efforts and its customers," Amanda McPherson, vice president of marketing and developer services for The Linux Foundation, told LinuxInsider.

All Hail?

Red Hat, the developer of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, recently hung out its welcome mat as a congratulatory gesture to Microsoft's decision to become more active in the FOSS community. When asked to comment on Microsoft's role via its new subsidiary open source division, Karin Bakis of Red Hat's corporate marketing office told LinuxInsider that the move will benefit all involved.

The Red Hat reply included the full text of the RedHat Development Team's blog on the Microsoft announcement. The company's remarks included a push for a more open world for both software customers and developers. The biggest gains should come from increased interoperability.

Microsoft officials declined to discuss their open source commitment and the goals of Microsoft Open Technologies.

What Makes Trivial?

The power of open source is undeniable, claimed another portion of the Red Hat blog. "Open source collaboration works when many are participating in earnest," according to Red Hat.

A commitment to being open represents a radical shift and becomes part of the culture, according to Red Hat. Applying that standard to Microsoft, the Linux Foundation views the formation of Microsoft Open Technologies as legitimate and welcomed. Microsoft's participation in Linux development is real and pragmatic, offered McPherson.

"The focus of its contributions to Linux have been on supporting its customers' needs for its Hyper-V virtualization software to support Linux," she said.

Parted View

Is Microsoft's new move into a FOSS neighborhood welcomed by the neighbors? That depends on which part of the neighborhood you consider.

"Free and open source software has grown significantly in the past 10 years and with it a growing number of communities. There is no singular FOSS community. When asking about Microsoft's participation being legitimate, we should be specific about in which community," Ed Boyajian, EnterpriseDB CEO and cofounder, told LinuxInsider.

In general, FOSS communities thrive with corporate sponsorship and participation. Linux would not likely be running production workloads across the Fortune 5,000 if it were not for Red Hat, IBM, Dell, HP and others, he explained.

Vested Interest

Microsoft's participation is legitimate, necessary and wanted, he added. For instance, many open source products run on Windows as their primary platform.

Therefore, it is in the best interests of both Microsoft and the open source communities to work together to have the products work well on Microsoft platforms, he asserted.

"At EnterpriseDB, many of our customers run PostgreSQL on Windows. I believe the PostgreSQL community would welcome help from Microsoft on performance or other Windows issues," he said.

Control Crazy

If FOSS diehards do not want Microsoft to invest in open source in this manner, then what do they want? In a word, replied Boyajian, control.

"It all comes down to control. I think many open source communities are fearful that too much participation by one vendor will create technology that only benefits that one vendor," he said.

Instead, vendors have to understand that most FOSS communities are led by a collection of individual developers. They may work for a particular company, but their participation in the community needs to benefit the community first, he explained.

Mending Fences

Microsoft has to demonstrate its sincerity. It must convince naysayers that it is no longer the enemy of open source. Otherwise, FOSS opponents have good reason to remain suspicious of Microsoft and its motives.

To do that, Microsoft has to establish a policy that allows its employees to participate fully in open source projects, just like Sun, IBM, HP, Red Hat and many others have done, noted Boyajian.

"Then, they need to demonstrate commitment and participation. You can't just declare that you want to be part of the community. You have to be active on mailing lists, forums, bug tracking, fixing bugs, creating new features and more," he concluded.

The Other Side

Microsoft has so far moved in with the same old baggage.

"It's not like Microsoft has a choice. I think the company has just realized in the last few years that not all of their customers are happy using the complete Microsoft stack," Miguel Valdes Faura, CEO of open source software company BonitaSoft, told LinuxInsider.

Some of its customers are using Windows solutions and also want to use some open source solutions. Rather than try to compete with open source, Microsoft is trying to do something else to help their customers who want both solutions to work together, Valdes Faura suggested.

What If?

Microsoft has to cozy up to the open source community or it will lose more money, according to Valdes Faura. His working relationship with Microsoft showed him significant attitude changes over the last two years.

For example, Microsoft's representatives working with BonitaSoft in France now express a desire to have a smooth transition for their customers who will switch to some open source products and use them within the Windows OS, he said.

Microsoft's strategy is to certify BonitaSoft's stack and other open source stacks as an approved tie-in to the Windows OS. Microsoft wants to be sure that the popular open source business solutions will interoperate with Windows and vice versa, Valdes Faura explained.

"That approach was going to help them provide more value to their own customers," he said.

AntiFOSS Anthem

However, a leopard cannot change its spots, and neither can Microsoft. The way you run an open source company is completely different from the way you run a proprietary company, noted Valdes Faura, a longtime open source advocate and developer. The company is not going to change its business model. It can't switch from one to the other.

So Microsoft will never be an open source company, Valdes Faura said.

"Microsoft is being forced to make cooperative inroads. But it will never fully embrace open source philosophy. It is doing what it is doing as a business strategy to accommodate its customers. This is something that will always stand in the way," he said.

But like other neighborhood leaders in FOSSland, Valdes Faura is not ready to kick Microsoft to the curb. Instead, he favors a cooperative deal for coexistence.

"What Microsoft is doing now is a very good move. I'm really happy with it for my company. The market place is changing. At the end of the day, it is going to take more of a revolution to see anything more drastic take place," he said.

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

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