June 13, 2006

Commentary: Beware when Microsoft reaches out

Author: Joe Barr

eWeek.com this week ran a story entitled "Can Windows and Open Source Learn to Play Nice?" The opening paragraph of that story, written by Peter Galli, reads "Microsoft has been reaching out to the open-source community to try to find ways to overcome the incompatibilities between software distributed under the GNU General Public License and its own commercial software." Anytime I read of Microsoft "reaching out" to someone, the hackles on the back of my neck appear and I hunker down into a defensive position.

I've been watching Microsoft's Machiavellian machinations since IBM gave the company the corner on the PC operating system business in the early '80s, and when they "reach out," it's either to steal something or to hurt someone.

While the story is wrapped in terms of "open source," the source of Microsoft's angst about open source is clearly Linux and its license, the GPL. The first swing at the GPL comes from Microsoft vice president Bob Muglia, who was quoted in the article as saying, "The GPL has an inherent incompatibility that is, to my knowledge, impossible to overcome."

In true Microsoftian style, Muglia then conflates commercial business and closed source to arrive at his carefully crafted and duplicitous conclusion:

A commercial company has to build intellectual property, while the GPL, by its very nature, does not allow intellectual property to be built, making the two approaches fundamentally incompatible, Muglia said.

Of course, Muglia is lying. The statement begins with the lie that "A commercial company has to build intellectual property." The second part of Muglia's falsehood is that the GPL does not allow "intellectual property" to be built. What is it they say -- two wrongs don't make right? In this case, that means that Muglia's conclusion, being based on two lies, is also false.

Having planted his falsehood, Muglia is then seen retreating back into his allegedly reasonable stand. You know the one. It seems he is open to open source licenses like the ones the BSDs or MIT use. And why not? Microsoft learned TCP from BSD and stole Kerberos from MIT. What really frustrates Microsoft about the GPL is not so much its terms, which protect the rights of developers and users, but rather that the GPL defends code from intellectual piracy.

Microsoft's research and development efforts have always been focused primarily on gaining competitive intelligence about the strengths and weaknesses of its competitors, from DR-DOS to OS/2. The work the company is doing on Linux is being touted as part of Microsoft's alleged work on interoperability, but that's not true either -- not unless finding places where interoperability is possible, and then making sure Vista slams the door on it, counts.

Muglia counts his colleague Bill Hilf's research on fodder for its "Get the facts" campaign and future purchased benchmarks, should Vista ever be released, as being about "interoperability." It's all an effort to make Microsoft look like a reasonable party and the GPL crowd as wild-eyed, anti-business zealots.

As Eben Moglen pointed out in his keynote at the Red Hat Summit, Microsoft has spent an awful lot of money to get that very message out there. And as Moglen pointed out, if you are a Windows user, some of that money was yours.

Can Microsoft and open source play nice together? A more realistically framed version of that question -- in contrast to the soft and gentle stage lights which spotlight Microsoft and its intentions in this story -- is "can sharks and penguins play nice together?"

The answer now, then, and always is that Microsoft never plays nice with anyone, though all their money, cachet in the trade press, and guile seek to convince us otherwise.

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