Is Microsoft Poisoning its Sea of Troubles?

Today seems to be Microsoft Monday. While the company has developed a death-wish in its relations with the European Commission, it is doing something fascinating with its other bête noire, open source. But first, some context.

As I wrote some while ago, Microsoft has tried just about every form and flavour of FUD in an effort to discredit open source, all to no avail. And so it has changed tack in a very interesting way: instead of hating free software, it has decided to love it to death.

Manifestations of this new-found infatuation for all things open include sponsoring open source conferences; setting up The Interoperability Forum; singing the praises of Open Source Heroes; and setting up an entire section of its web site devoted to open source. Most interestingly, perhaps, it has started snuggling up to leading open source projects. Here's the latest such move, an attempt to “reach out” to the “3-D content creation suite”, Blender (an amazing program if you've never tried it, BTW):

I recently was contacted by Microsoft Development, they've assigned one of their people with the job to support open source projects better.

There are some tantalising hints as to what exactly that “support” might entail:

With respect to Blender, what can you tell me about your community/user feedback that you have heard regarding file formats? Specifically, Microsoft is slowly shifting toward a more open standards based approach to its file formats. The ISO standard Office Open XML is an example of the direction we are moving towards.

OOXML is an example, eh? So, in other words, we're talking about pseudo-open file formats – ones that enjoy all the kudos of openness, but which are still effectively controlled by Microsoft, the only company able to implement them fully – just as with OOXML.

Even more interesting is the following:

A good user experience of Blender on Windows is good for your project/community and good for Microsoft. What we are trying to understand is what file formats, which are not open or not fully open, are impeding the optimal experience with your community. If this is an important issue to your users then it also accrues to the experience in Windows.

This seems to be the heart of Microsoft's new approach. It wants to ensure that Blender – and ultimately all open source programs – run well on Windows. Why? Because the foundation of the free software world is GNU/Linux. While that exists as a viable alternative to Windows, Microsoft has very little power over the rest of open source.

Imagine, though, a day when open source programs run well on Windows. Given that the installed base of Windows is currently much larger than that for GNU/Linux, this means that many open source developers are likely to start paying more attention to Microsoft's platform, even to the detriment of GNU/Linux versions. As a result, some coders will be more amenable to including “optimised” technologies like Silverlight in their Windows versions. And so it will begin: the gradual pollution of free software with proprietary elements and software patents.

If Microsoft's old approach can be likened to Hamlet's attempt to “take arms against a sea of troubles” - a futile effort - it's new, more subtle, tactic might be characterised as poisoning that sea. As we know from real life, that's all-too easy, and particularly hard to prevent, especially as it can occur very slowly and imperceptibly to begin with.

To prevent the poison building up to noxious levels, open source projects need to be extremely wary when responding to Microsoft's chummy enquiries, or they may ultimately find themselves repeating Hamlet's more famous quotation from the opening of the same speech.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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