Could Microsoft actually be getting an open-source clue?

I couldn't make it to OSCON last week in Portland, OR, but I have read the announcements that Sam Ramji, the director of Microsoft's Open Source Software Lab, made at this open-source software show. They were the friendliest things I've ever seen come out of Microsoft towards open source.

The first announcement, that Microsoft was contributing a patch to ADOdb, a PHP database access interface, wasn't that big a deal. It is, after all, self-serving. Microsoft's contribution will enable people to use its own SQL Server instead of MySQL or PostgreSQL with PHP programs. Yawn. Nothing new here.

The second announcement, that Microsoft was placing its Communications Protocol Program under its Open Specification Promise, and clarified that developer could use the communication protocols to build open-source software for commercial use, sounded much more important than it really is. You see the European Union courts ordered Microsoft to open those protocols up. Samba and the SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center) hammered out an agreement late last year that spelled out how the protocols could be used while avoiding Microsoft patents.

Later, Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, claimed that Microsoft could still charge you a patent license if you used some -- he didn't specify which -- of the protocols in commercial software. Not so nice, and not really what the European court had in mind either.

What Ramji did was to say that developers could create commercial software that would be free "from any patent claims from Microsoft now or in the future, and includes both Microsoft-developed and industry-developed protocols." Of course, that's what the European Union had demanded of Microsoft all along, but details, details.

Richard Wilde, associate general counsel for intellectual property policy at Microsoft, spelled this out in another public memo, The OSP and You. You know, I am not a lawyer, but personally I don't quite see how Ramji draws his sweeping conclusion from what Wilde wrote. If I were an open-source software developer and I planned on using some of Microsoft's communication protocols, I'd have my lawyer take a close look at this before I started coding. It seems to me that there's still might be a Microsoft IP poison pill in here.

Ramji's final announcement, though, that "Microsoft is becoming a sponsor of the ASF (Apache Software Foundation), [which] will enable the ASF to pay administrators and other support staff so that ASF developers can focus on writing great software" is a shocker.

It's not, Ramji hastened to point out that "a move away from IIS as Microsoft's strategic web server technology." But, he continued, "It is a strong endorsement of The Apache Way, and opens a new chapter in our relationship with the ASF. We have worked with Apache POI, Apache Axis2, Jakarta, and other projects in the last year, and we will continue our technical support and interoperability testing work for this open source software."

My word. While the money to support Apache is pocket change for Microsoft, it is noteworthy that Microsoft is putting any money into a real open-source project and that they're saying good things about a major open-source project. Will miracles never cease?

Now, don't take this to mean that Steve Ballmer wants to come sing "Kumbaya" with Linus Torvalds around a campfire. When it comes to open source I trust Steve Ballmer about as far as I can throw him. I do think though that it shows that at least some divisions in Microsoft are recognizing that they're going to need to maintain peaceful co-existence with Linux and open source. No matter how much it may gall Ballmer and the rest of the top leadership.

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