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Microsoft: Open source not that open

Four years into its Shared Source Program, Microsoft is looking to cash in on what's worked for the open source community.

NEWTON, MASS. -- According to experts, the dominant operating systems in the data center by the end of the decade will be Windows and Linux -- and Microsoft is getting ready for that standoff by learning from the competition.

Jason Matusow, director of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative, got in front of the audience at the Open Source Business Conference to promote Microsoft's simplified licensing scheme, as well as the other merits of the Shared Source Program.

Experts said that by addressing the open source community, Microsoft hopes to promote its position that software should continue to be developed in the traditional "closed" way, while at the same time attempting to cash in on the community development phenomenon.

What is it?

Shared source is Microsoft's foray into community development, started back in 2001 when Linux was just a hobby for the blue-haired ponytail set. It's not open source, as defined by the Open Source Institute, but it does share some of its qualities such as sharing source code and allowing changes and redistribution of products.

But according to Tony Iams, a vice president and senior analyst with Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Ideas International, the goals of shared source and open source are very different.

Iams said Linux operates in a way that allows the best ideas to come up from the development community. Then those best features are enshrined into the next offering and dictate the direction of the operating system.

But shared source takes a different approach.

Open source IT pros respond to Microsoft

Microsoft has been trying to get a lot closer to the open source community of late.

Two months ago, Redmond signed a deal with open source application server provider JBoss to make sure the companies' technologies work better together.

In August, the company's offer to jointly sponsor research into the total cost of ownership of Windows versus Linux was rejected by Open Source Development Labs.

 Earlier in the year, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said his company's Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 would support Linux-based virtual machines.

 Is Microsoft planning on getting into the open source business? Here's what some readers had to say:

Microsoft is playing politics. Microsoft will merely take technology and processes that were developed and perfected by OSS developers, and then merely smack a Microsoft label on it, and resell it as their own innovation. -- Jan Wynholds, programmer, D-M Information Systems Inc.

I fully expect this is the beginning of an attempt by Microsoft to try to take over open source's market share at some point in the future. -- Alex Belt, systems administrator

Microsoft would rather eat its dead than to share anything. -- Bill Woods, systems programmer

Source: Mark Brunelli, News Editor

"Microsoft gives people access, but not to cause upstream change that it will roll into its products," Iams said. "They aren't letting the community control the direction of their development."

Microsoft's philosophy is to only share code where it makes sense, with a specific goal in mind.

Matusow said opening up software can add value, "but you need to understand why you want to open certain software. We are building intellectual property into software and trying to sell it. We throw code over the wall for the community to build on it."

According to Charles King, principal analyst with Hayward, Calif.-based Pund-IT Research, Microsoft would do well to capture the collaboration of the Linux community, but to equate shared source and open source are the same thing would be ludicrous.

King said shared source is like making improvements on an apartment. It might improve your quality of life, but at the end of the day, Microsoft owns the building.

Simplified system

Microsoft recently updated the licensing scheme of its shared source program by cutting the number of licensing from over 10 to just three.

"[Shared source] is not one thing. There are over 80 releases from different groups within Microsoft. We don't speak with one voice on how we're going to do licensing." Matusow said.

The licenses fall under three levels of restrictiveness:

  • The permissive license allows developers to redistribute software and charge licensing fees.
  • The community license features file reciprocation -- developers share changes with the community.
  • The reference license is intended for reading only -- no changes, no redistribution.

    "[Microsoft] reduced the number of licenses because it was difficult for developers to pull projects together that fell under different agreements. This makes it cleaner," Iams said.

    Open source not that open?

    More on this topic:

    Red Hat to include Xen virtualization in next Linux release  

    Open Source virtual server software a likely dark horse  

    One of the main tenets of the shared source philosophy is that most people don't want to get down into the weeds of an operating system and make changes -- and if they do, it's going to cost them. Matusow offered Linux software provider Red Hat as an example.

    Red Hat issues patch updates for its premium offering, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and keeps customers' IT infrastructure secure.

    "But if a customer modifies the source code, [Red Hat] can't help you [without charging you extra]. They have to lock things down to provide value," Matusow said. "As open source becomes commercialized, it becomes less open."

    Iams agreed with that point. "[Matusow] weakened the value of that ability to change code. That's a good point for certain users, but for others, it's an acceptable price to pay," he said.

    King said the "Open source isn't open" argument is Microsoft's attempt to wave the Unix fear flag.

    At one time, King said, Unix had been an open source program, until companies started differentiating themselves.

    "Sun, HP, IBM and others all made their own models, took their toys home and built their own sandbox," King said. "[Microsoft] points to that and says it could happen again, but I think the Linux community is aware of what happened and they won't let that happen again."

    Regardless of which camp you fall under, Matusow said competition between Microsoft and Linux is good for IT.

    "Product competition increases choice, improves price through competition," he said, citing competition between Linux flavors from Red Hat, Mandrake and Novell. "Product competition is healthy."

    Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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