Microsoft, the good open source citizen

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (750 Words)

What a difference a few years can make. For a long time, Microsoft was seen as public enemy #1 of those who liked to promote, produce and consume open source (I’m deliberately not describing it as a ‘movement’ here - that implies political motivations which I assert that only a vocal minority have). It was entirely their own fault of couse; blustery, really quite bizarre tirades from the only two CEOs their company has ever had cemented their position as the McCarthy’s of the modern era. It wasn’t helped, of course, by extremists on the opposite end of the spectrum, but still - the way the company behaved in previous years has at times been utterly shameful.

The reason it wasn’t sustainable is that they started to lose the very people they’ve always done a pretty good job of nurturing - developers. Even reasonable, level headed developers who have few extremist tendencies but who could see the many benefits of open source¬† (I count myself among them) began to turn away from the company as they seemed hell-bent on protecting their vested interests using whatever means possible, and irrespective of the collatteral damage - mostly through lies and threats.

I developed my early career around the time that Microsoft was rising, with their software replacing the mainframes and minis that were so tricky to work with at times, and I really appreciated them for it. They made my life easier as a developer in the 90’s. In the new millennium though, when they started rattling sabres over open source, and trying to bind me and my products into ever more of a restricted, Microsoft-only environment, they did precisely the opposite. The notion that you could use their really nice tools, so long as you only targetted Windows & Office, and with constant posturing over whether using open source was ‘communism’, drove me and probably plenty of other developers in precisely the opposite direction.

For as long as Steve Ballmer is in charge, I’ll have a healthy amount of skepticism about whether Microsoft can really, genuinely change its stance at its core. Like Bill Gates before him, these are agressive 80’s-style businessmen who¬† I can never hope to understand or remotely trust. But what’s clear is that either he’s learned how out of step he is with his potential customers, or he has been forced by others in the company to accept a changing stance on open source.

2009 is for me the year that Microsoft became a regular citizen of the open-source environment. Sure, before that they set up Port25 and CodePlex, but these were mostly self-serving and didn’t necessarily demonstrate MS’s ability to play well with others, which is precisely what open source is about. What really changed in 2009 is that Microsoft began to use external open source, intentionally and unintentionally, and crucially played it squarely by the rules with little or no fuss. This is a very big deal.

One of the first steps was Visual Studio using jQuery, which is entirely sensible. Historically Microsoft has had a terrible tendency to reinvent the wheel unnecessarily, which ends up being more hassle for everyone. Re-use of mature components for everyone’s benefit is what open source is about.

This year though, Microsoft has issued code under the GPL, something I’m sure many people thought would never happen. Firstly there was contributing code to Linux for Hyper-V, and most recently they (unintentionally) used some GPL code in a USB/DVD boot tool for Windows 7, an issue that was raised by a third party but which on investigation Microsoft confirmed - leading them to commit to releasing the full code under the GPL to customers.

Of course, this is precisely what they are bound to do legally. But the fact that it is being resolved in an open and completely unemotive manner, in the same way that any other responsible company would deal with it, is quite significant. This is Microsoft, the company that said the GPL was anti-American and borderline communist - openly and contritely resolving a GPL issue in the correct way with no sleight-of-hand or posturing. I respect that a great deal.

Welcome back to the community Microsoft, it’s about bloody time. Congratulations to all the reasonable people inside the corporate beast who are finally managing to turn the supertanker. I really hope you convince Ballmer to retire soon though, he’s a relic of a bygone age and an impediment to the new image you’re trying to create.