User queries prompt new Microsoft attack on open source

Microsoft Corp. today renewed its offensive against open-source software development, a move that the software vendor said was made in response to repeated queries from corporate users about how it's responding to the open-source movement.

The latest salvo against open-source efforts -- the third by Microsoft since January -- came during a speech in New York by Craig Mundie, the company's senior vice president of advanced strategies. Speaking at New York University's Stern School of Business, Mundie claimed that the open-source movement could result in "product instability" and "inherent security risks" for software users.

Open-source development "leads to a strong possibility of unhealthy 'forking' of a code base," potentially producing incompatible versions of programs, Mundie said in a transcript of his remarks provided by Microsoft. Even more disruptive, he added, is the GNU general public license (GPL) under which much open-source software is created.

When a developer alters software already covered under the GPL, the new code is also deemed subject to the license, meaning that it's not owned by any individual company. The problem, Mundie argued, is that the GPL does away with intellectual property rights, making open-source development an impossible road for a healthy business model.

Open-source approaches "ask software developers to give away for free the very thing they create that is of greatest value, in the hope that somehow they'll make money selling something else," Mundie said. "In effect, [the GPL] puts at risk the continued vitality of the independent software sector." He compared use of the GPL by software developers to the dot-com practice of giving away content on the Internet.

Mundie couldn't be reached for comment about his speech. But David Coburn, a program manager at Microsoft's platforms group, said Mundie's remarks were a response to questions from customers who want to know the software vendor's position on open-source programming.

Some parts of the open-source world are seen positively by Microsoft, Coburn said, citing things such as the opportunity to have multiple programmers working independently to build and debug code. Earlier this year, Microsoft expanded a program for sharing its Windows source code with users, although no changes can be made in the code.

But at the same time, Coburn said, Microsoft believes that the GPL requirements "are essentially taking away incentives to private enterprises." Microsoft does "take competition seriously, whether it's from open-source or anywhere else," he added. "Linux is competition."

This is hardly the first time that the company has targeted the open-source movement. Two months ago, Jim Allchin, Microsoft's vice president for platforms, publicly criticized open-source development as an "intellectual property destroyer." And at the LinuxWorld conference in New York in January, Doug Miller, a group product manager for Microsoft's server-level software, said open-source development could lead to "chaos ... where people create code that may be incompatible".

Al Gillen, an analyst at market ressearch firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., said Microsoft apparently feels that it can no longer remain idle while corporate users eye the progress of open-source development.

Microsoft officials are now "saying they have some open-source ideas and raising it to an issue where the company can be a part of the conversation," Gillen said. "I really think they need to address the issue. They can't dodge it [anymore]." Products that come out of the GPL process "are a danger" to Microsoft, he added.

The Software Information & Industry Association (SIIA), a Washington-based trade group that has become a nemesis of Microsoft, issued a statement criticizing Mundie's speech as a continuation of the company's efforts to use "public relations tactics to incite fear among businesses that are considering migrating to the open-source model."

"Microsoft is once again publicly making the case that innovation in the software industry should happen only at the discretion and direction of Microsoft," said Ken Wasch, the SIAA's president, as part of the statement. "Furthermore, Microsoft's assertions that its business model embodies the open-source movement through current practices of sharing source code [are] incredulous."

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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