Back in May, Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Senior VP Advanced Strategies, made a very strategic move; he gave a speech at NYU's Stern School of Business that announced the terms by which Microsoft was cracking open—barely—its source code. He called the company's new licensing model “shared source”. (I just wrote “scared source” by mistake, which tells you where my mind is headed.)
The fact that Microsoft would start rapping about any kind of source code, and modify it with a fresh new euphemism—shared—caused immediate tissue rejection in the hacker cultural body. Leading hackers so certain of their own Truth that they refuse to appear on each other's t-shirts were suddenly gathered around their collective keyboards to craft a single response that would say, in polite terms, “Embrace and extend this, dude.”
The result was an open letter published on Bruce Perens' site, and signed by Bruce and a quotariat of Free Software and Open Source luminaries: Richard Stallman, Eric S. Raymond, Guido Van Rossum, Tim O'Reilly, Larry Augustin, Bob Young, Larry Wall, Miguel de Icaza and Linus Torvalds. (An anonymous coward on Slashdot wrote, “It's like a human Beowulf cluster!”) While critical and challenging to Microsoft, its bottom line was open and inviting:
We urge Microsoft to go the rest of the way in embracing the Open Source software development paradigm. Stop asking for one-way sharing, and accept the responsibility to share and share alike that comes with the benefits of Open Source. Acknowledge that it is compatible with business.
Free Software is a great way to build a common foundation of software that encourages innovation and fair competition. Microsoft, it's time for you to join us.
Mundie came back with a piece in CNET that framed his argument in terms of economics, manufacture and the PC's popularity:
... this is more than just an academic debate. The commercial software industry is a significant driver of our global economy. It employs 1.35 million people and produces $175 billion in worldwide revenues annually (sources: BSA, IDC).
The business model for commercial software has a proven track record and is a key engine of economic growth for many countries. It has boosted productivity and efficiency in almost every sector of the economy, as businesses and individuals have enjoyed the wealth of tools, information and other activities made possible in the PC era.
Then he took on the GPL, the Free Software Foundation's General Public License:
In my speech, I did not question the right of the open-source software model to compete in the marketplace. The issue at hand is choice; companies and individuals should be able to choose either model, and we support this right. I did call out what I believe is a real problem in the licensing model that many open-source software products employ: the General Public License.
The GPL turns our existing concepts of intellectual property rights on their heads. Some of the tension I see between the GPL and strong business models is by design, and some of it is caused simply because there remains a high level of legal uncertainty around the GPL—uncertainty that translates into business risk.
In my opinion, the GPL is intended to build a strong software community at the expense of a strong commercial software business model. That's why Linus Torvalds said last week that “Linux is never really going to be a rich sell.”
This isn't to say that some companies won't find a business plan that can make money releasing products under the GPL. We have yet to see such companies emerge, but perhaps some will.
What is at issue with the GPL? In a nutshell, it debases the currency of the ideas and labor that transform great ideas into great products.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as provocation in the voice of boilerplate, or worse, “a declaration of war on our culture”, as one überhacker privately called it. But neither of those responses are useful to folks caught in the middle—the IT professionals my Linux Journal column calls “suits”.
We used the term open source not to piss off the FSF folks, but to claim a semantic space where we could talk about issues without scaring away the people whose beliefs we wanted to change.
So far this has been an extremely successful strategy for which Eric and the Open Source community deserve extreme credit. Even if IT suits don't agree about what “open source” means, they're all at least talking about it. And using lots of it, too.
But if markets are conversations, everybody who inhabits the open-source semantic space is involved in the market—a market that now includes Microsoft. What happens if Microsoft makes more sense to their constituency than we do? This is an important question. Conversing is not the same as believing. Remember Eric's last seven words from above. Most of the suits talking about open source are still people whose beliefs we want to change.
Changing other people's beliefs isn't like changing your shoes: it's like changing other people's shoes. Even if the other guy's shoes are ugly and uncomfortable, they're still familiar to him. And in this case, familiar doesn't cover it. In the IT world, Microsoft's platforms, software and tools are the prevailing environment that Microsoft wants very much to protect.
How much? Here's Steve Ballmer talking about Linux in January: “I think you have to rate competitors that threaten your core higher than you rate competitors where you're trying to take from them.” He adds: “It puts the Linux phenomenon and the Unix phenomenon at the top of the list. I'd put the Linux phenomenon really as threat No. 1.” He goes on to say Sun and Oracle are “second tier” rivals, adding, “I'd put AOL probably maybe at that level or a half-step down.”
So how well does Steve Ballmer understand this threat? Not very, judging from this this wild conflation of open source, Linux and licensing:
The only thing we have a problem with is when the government funds open-source work. Government funding should be for work that is available to everybody. Open source is not available to commercial companies. The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source. If the government wants to put something in the public domain, it should. Linux is not in the public domain. Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way that the license works.
Never one to shy from a fight, Eric Raymond blasted back a Q&A titled The Big Lie:
Other open-source licenses—such as the BSD license in the TCP/IP stack that Microsoft adapted for Windows—will never infect anybody's code or data, because they're designed not to. But Ballmer wants business people and the public to fear them all, because only if open source is general is discredited will Microsoft maintain its monopoly.
The Big Lie is a term originally coined to describe a characteristic form of Nazi (and later Soviet) propaganda. The essence of the Big Lie propaganda technique is that if you repeat the lie often enough over enough channels, people will soak it up through their pores and come to believe it as something “everybody knows”.
In the last three months, Jim Allchin and Craig Mundie and Steve Ballmer have launched a classic Big Lie campaign against open source. They have described it as “un-American”, “a destroyer”, and “a cancer”. They have deliberately confused the GPL with non-infectious open-source licenses, and they have deliberately confused active combination of code with passive aggregation of data. They have lied, and lied, and lied again.
Why? Because the most truthful thing Ballmer admitted in that interview is that yeah, Linux *is* a threat to Microsoft.
There's a good reason Microsoft can get away with a lie & confuse strategy: its #1 threat is pretty damn confusing already, without any help from Microsoft. Most confusing of all, from the perspective of common business sense, is the GPL, about which the Open Source community is both respectful and protective, even though there is plenty of disagreement about it. By hitting the GPL squarely where it appears least useful for business, Mundie disperses the community like a rack of pool balls. Suddenly they're all over the place, talking about all kinds of stuff.
From the perspective of both Microsoft and its customers, the one thing that's easy to understand (not right or wrong, just easy) is in the upper right. This is the familiar stuff that IT suits have been paying for since the Nixon administration. By aiming insults at the GPL in the lower left, Microsoft hopes everybody in the Free/Open communities will rush to defend what business folks have the most trouble understanding: the FSF's belief that software should not be owned.
In other words, Microsoft wants us to join a “debate” in which we defend the one thing we can't stop arguing about amongst ourselves. What's more, they've located their position—shared source—in a location toward which the business end of the open source world is headed anyway.
That's right. “Everybody's headed toward a hybrid model”, Larry Augustin told me last week. He didn't have time to explain exactly what he meant, but last night at dinner Eric Raymond gave me an explanation that included this interesting fact: VA will sell some closed-source software. He hedged with some pretty big qualifiers, but the word “closed” passed his lips.
A few days ago I asked another CEO what's going on. He said, “Call it `shared source,' `gated source' `source under glass'... we're all working in the same direction.” When I pressed him for a reason, he said, “We need to make money.”
Nobody in the commercial end of the Open Source community is eager to speak in vivid terms about the drift in their commercial source code policies—at least not yet. Meanwhile, Microsoft is very eager to do exactly that, giving them a certain advantage.
Will Craig Mundie will use that advantage on Thursday when he debates Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann? Will open-source luminaries (a superset of the Beowulf Cluster who signed the original response to Mundie) take up the issue when I raise it with them at the Open Source Summit tomorrow? And will the open-source conversation grow to include independent commercial developers like Dave Winer and his company, Userland, which are doing open-source work (in Userland's case, on XML-RPC and SOAP) but have not been members of the community until now?
Finding out more about this stuff is Job One in San Diego this week. Stay tuned.