Microsoft and Open-Source Backers Eye Each Other Warily

Despite new overtures, the two sides remain 'frenemies' sometimes friends, sometimes foes.

Theres a scene in the 2004 movie Mean Girls in which the most popular girl in the films fictional high school finds out that a friend who now is a fast-rising social rival plans to throw a party without inviting her.

Who does she think she is? sniffs the suddenly threatened clique leader or Queen Bee, in the movies parlance. I, like, invented her, you know what I mean?

Take away the Valley Girl lingo and substitute open source for she, and you have an approximation of Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmers declaration almost exactly one year ago that Linux (playing the role of the movies Wanna­be) uses our intellectual property.

Ballmers statement along with follow-up claims by Microsoft executives that they had found violations of 235 patents in Linux and other open-source software caused a sudden refrosting of what had been a slowly thawing relationship between the company and the open-source community.

In recent years, Microsoft, whose combative CEO once called Linux a cancer from an intellectual property standpoint, has set up its own open-source testing lab, begun hosting open-source projects on its CodePlex Web site and signed partnership deals with various open-source vendors.

But by dangling the threat of patent-infringement lawsuits over the heads of users and vendors alike, Microsoft opened up a can of worms with the open-source community that they have been attempting to close since then, said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif.

So wary frenemies the two sides remain. And their friend-or-foe relationship has continued to evolve in both directions this month.

Microsoft did finally get an invitation of sorts to the open-source party on Oct. 10, when the Open Source Initiative (OSI) approved two of its software licenses as a valid means of distributing open-source technologies.

The company also continues to try to ingratiate itself with open-source backers. At the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Ballmer vowed to do some buying of companies that are built around open-source products.

And last Monday, Microsoft agreed to give developers of open-source workgroup server products access to Windows interoperability information and to slash the royalties it will charge for using the information from 5.95% of a products revenue to 0.4%. But that agreement was a grudging one, made to finally comply with a 2004 antitrust ruling by the European Commission.

Microsoft also announced a collaboration and intellectual property assurance deal with Turbolinux Inc. last week the latest in a series of controversial agreements that has split the Linux camp between vendors that have agreed to terms and others that have said they arent interested in doing so.

Nobody thinks Microsoft has displaced IBM as the BFF best friend forever of open-source vendors.

King, for one, remains skeptical about Microsofts intentions. The company is endeavoring to be friends with customers that are purchasing heterogeneous computing solutions and using Linux, he said. However, Im not sure that makes them a friend of Linux. And, he noted, Microsofts patent claims are still an issue.

But Adam Solesby, chief technology officer at StudioNow Inc., a Nashville-based start-up that is developing a Web-based video editing service for consumers and small businesses, said he isnt worried that Microsoft will go after companies like his.

The specter of the software vendor suing users is not a realistic threat, he said. I think were fairly safe from that. Solesby was a longtime Microsoft customer, but his new company uses a MySQL database running on top of a homegrown version of Linux. Setting a New Tone

Ballmers comments about buying open-source vendors set the right tone, blogged Matt Asay, an OSI board member and vice president of business development at Alfresco Software Inc.

We need a bit more of this side of Ballmer: the rational side that recognizes that Microsoft needs to engage, not estrange, the open-source world, Asay added. Now it just needs to behave in such a way that open-source companies wont blanch at the thought of being acquired by Microsoft.

In a blog posting that announced the OSIs approval of Microsofts so-called shared-source licenses, Michael Tiemann, the open-source groups president, said that the software vendor had submitted the licenses under the same policies and procedures that other parties have used. Microsoft didnt ask for special treatment and didnt receive any, wrote Tiemann, who also is vice president of open-source affairs at Linux distributor Red Hat Inc.

The Redwood City, Calif.-based OSI received nearly 400 e-mails when Microsoft first announced in late July that it planned to seek open-source certification of its licenses. But since the OSI approved the licenses, it has received surprisingly few messages, Tiemann said via e-mail last week, although he added that those sent thus far have all been against the decision.

Bill Hilf, general manager of Windows Server marketing and platform strategy at the software vendor, said in a statement that the OSIs decision was a significant milestone in the progression of Micro­softs open-source strategy and the companys ongoing commitment to participation in the open-source community. Microsoft said Hilf was on vacation and unavailable for a follow-up interview last week.

Microsoft appears to have accepted that Linux on servers and devices at least, if not the desktop cannot be completely stopped, said Daniel Egger, CEO of consulting firm Open Source Risk Management Inc.

Turbolinux is the seventh Linux vendor to sign a licensing deal that includes a promise by Microsoft not to sue users over patent issues. Novell Inc. was the first last November. It was criticized by many open-source advocates, but the agreement has borne fruit for Novell, which said last month that its Linux sales grew nearly 250% year-to-year in the first three quarters of the fiscal year that ends Wednesday.

Dave Gynn, director of enterprise tools and frameworks at open-source consulting firm Optaros Inc., claimed that such deals are a way for Microsoft to grab some control of Linux in order to slow its adoption by users.

The deals also could help to bolster Microsofts patent-infringement claims potentially posing legal risks for users of Red Hat and other Linux vendors that havent signed agreements.

But Egger noted that Microsoft has yet to do anything more than rattle its saber at Linux vendors and users. Meanwhile, two small firms that buy and enforce patents sued Red Hat and Novell earlier this month a development that Egger said was inevitable, Microsoft or no Microsoft.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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