Open Source Community Wary of Microsoft's Pledge

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Dominick Sartorio, president of the Open Solutions Alliance (OSA), said he understands the feelings of mistrust within the open source community. "There's always been a lot of language thrown around between Microsoft and the leaders in the open source community," he said. "Obviously it has not been a good relationship, but personally I think a lot of that is behind us now."

Sartorio said his initial reaction was one of cautious optimism, noting the devil is in the details. "The real news here is that they're finally publishing APIs," he said. "We think it is a pragmatic reaction to their customers demanding it -- there's 30,000 pages of stuff there."

Microsoft said it will publish on its Website the APIs and communications protocols in current and future updates of products such as Windows Vista (including the .NET Framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007. Microsoft won't require third party developers to buy licenses or pay royalty fees in order to access this information.

The general counsel for Raleigh, N.C.-based open source firm Red Hat, Michael Cunningham, was particularly leery of Microsoft's true intent, which he made clear in a written statement calling the announcement "disingenuous." He said Microsoft's four-point plan to ensure enhanced data portability and open source community engagement needs to be backed up with action as well as words. "Red Hat regards this most recent announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism," he said.

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Cunningham takes particular issue with a tenant in the announcement that says Microsoft will refrain from suing open source developers only as long as distribution of interoperable products is for noncommercial use. "Microsoft's announcement today appears carefully crafted to foreclose competition from the open source community," Cunningham said. ""The only hope for reintroducing competition to the monopoly markets Microsoft now controls is through commercial distributions of competitive open source software products."

Executive director of The Linux Foundation Jim Zemlin said the open source community has reason to be skeptical, noting there is more Microsofft can do to win the hearts and minds of open source developers. First off is the licensing issue, which Zemlin said developers want to be compatible with open source licensing. "In addition to publishing their APIs they can license them in a way that is compatible with open source practices," he said. "'Reasonable and non-discriminatory' is not specific enough."

Secondly, Zemlin says an initiative by Microsoft to drop their OOXML format (an XML-based file format specification for office suite documents) and embrace the Open Document format (ODF). By reaching out to the community in these ways, Zemlin says Microsoft can prove it is willing to truly embrace open standards and recognize the demand for open solutions.

"Microsoft is acknowledging that the world is moving toward open," he said. "They missed the Internet and are trying to catch up; they missed Google and they are trying to catch up." Zemlin said now the open source community has to wait and see if Microsoft will solidify its commitment. "At least they're not calling open source and Linux a cancer, as they once did," he said.

On the issue of patents, Sartorio said Microsoft's statement regarding patent protection was to be expected. "There really isn't anything new there to the defending of patents," he said. "When the key leaders on the legal side complain [about the announcement], that's what its about. He said the small but important step of Microsoft opening up their APIs means improved integration for applications, something Sartorio says customers have been clamoring for.

"It's not just Linux and Apache anymore -- you're starting to see open applications become more popular," he said. "Those customers are saying, look, we also run a lot of Microsoft, we want this integrating with Office on the desktop." Customers look at the patent issue as less of an immediate problem than they view interoperability," he said. "They're not worried about the patent issues more than they are worried about the product working," he said. "They see this as a vendor problem, and they want to see the vendor community solve it."

Sartorio dismissed rhetoric that Microsoft is "caving in" or "crying uncle" as some in the blogging community have claimed. "The empire is not crumbling, they're not becoming an open source company," he said. "What they did is a big step, but opening up APIs is something customers have been demanding more recently."

In addition to interoperability, customers are demanding a sea change in the way business is conducted, and they feel open source can be a positive force for that change, he said. "The industry is changing, becoming more open, not just with code but in transparency of interaction," he said. "I think [Microsoft] is gradually going to have to change their ways, and this is one of those steps."

John Roberts, CEO of Cupertino, Calif.-based open source CRM vendor SugarCRM, says regardless of Microsoft's intentions for opening up, it signals a positive trend in software development. He calls it a "step forward" for software developers and Microsoft. "There really isn't a need for software companies to write software in secret anymore," he said. "If you're comfortable being open and create an environment where developers can share their ideas as well, you get a more innovative product, and I think they're recognizing that."