The Great Debate

First published: July 2001 for Wide Open News.

For the first time since he renewed Microsoft's public criticism of the open source model, Craig Mundie, Senior Vice President of Advanced Strategies at Microsoft sat down with open source developers at Open Source Convention in San Diego today to discuss the two parties' different perspectives.

Mundie started by clarifying what Microsoft is trying to do. "Microsoft tries to learn, tries to move forward." The issues of licensing in general and specifically in the open source area, he said, are "profound issues" that the company feels it should help developers and corporations make an "informed choice [about], to try not to legislate, and that [Microsoft is] trying to create a dialog" within the software industry. Mundie said, "Microsoft has no beef with open source" and that his past "comments have been about licensing issues," not a slander campaign against the free and open source communities.

Microsoft, he says, is worried about the "software Eco-system." The company only "plays a small role in this system" that contains four different segments: the "Industry, Customers, Government, and Intellectual Commons." Mundie is not surprised that open source resonates with the "Intellectual Commons." "Microsoft finds itself in a time of flux, greater than in any other time in its history," said Mundie, no doubt referring to the slow computer industry and the government's anti-trust action that's still pending a resolution. Part of this flux is that "everyone wants choices." This includes choices of development -- the language used, the developer community, the source model, and the development platform. People also want choice in distribution, in the shareware, freeware, commercial, and open source markets. The choice of license is also important; the GPL free software model, the BSD-style open source model, or Microsoft's shared source license.

All of these choices, according to Mundie, have "profound policy implications" and Microsoft wants to not only provide choices, but to help developers and companies understand the implications of these choices. "In fact", Mundie continued, "every country will need a software market in the near future. So these license issues even effect other government policy." In the meantime, Microsoft is "learning from open source, expanding its community programs and expanding access to source with the Shared Source program" "The market will tell us which choice it wants and which works best," Mundie concluded. "These are the thoughts I want to leave with you."

Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann began his argument by quoting the state motto of North Carolina, home of Red Hat's headquarters. "It is better to be than to seem. It is better to be open then seem open, better to be trustworthy then to seem trustworthy." Implying that Microsoft is a wolf in sheep's clothing, Tiemann argued that a "lesser plan [that seems to be trustworthy] will crash and burn, stunting the growth of the industry." "We [the open source community] want Microsoft to do what is right [and] of all of the choices, that of open source it makes it easy to be instead of seem.

The question that was bothering Tiemann was "why would Microsoft try this new high profile deception?" His guess is that Microsoft employs a lot of smart people, and that these people have already supplied an answer in the form of the "Halloween documents" that describe the practice of 'embrace and extend.' The General Public License, or GPL, is the spine of the free and open source movements, much as the First Amendment is the spine of the American Constitution. "GPL provides that one can't be locked out of the market after making and investment or contribution to the market." Tiemann said, arguing that the GPL protects one from an embrace and extend attack. "Who says the GPL is bad for business?" Tiemann asked. "Red Hat has been hitting its market numbers, and made a profit a year before projected."

"Shared Source is a sign of a civil war within Microsoft" Tiemann said. The open source community will welcome Microsoft when this war is done and the winners have found that "the GPL is the right way."

After these opening statements, Mundie and Tiemann were joined by Clay Shirky from The Accelerator Group, Ronald Johnson, a Partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter, Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache web server project, David Stutz, a developer with Microsoft, and Mitchell Baker, Mozilla project member and author of the Mozilla Public License.

Mundie responded to the suggestion of a division within Microsoft saying "it's easy to try and look in from the outside, but there is a single view within Microsoft about how to proceed." Moderator Tim O'Reilly asked Behlendorf his views of Mundie's opening statements. "The software eco-system is not one-directional but bi-directional. [There are] other ways to re-invest, besides adding code...history seems to show, however, that open source methods are more flexible in allowing people to contribute. Shared Source, maybe?" Mundie agreed that "there [are] a number of ways to give back to a community and that Shared Source is indeed one workable way." Stutz continued, "I don't think there is war going on within Microsoft, but a lot of people are paying attention to open source, and Microsoft is indeed in the process if internalizing these ideals."

Moving on with the discussion, Tiemann said, "I appreciate the analogies that Microsoft has to offer, but it sounds like an oil company that says it will be sensitive to the environment as long as it's allowed to drill for oil. We're worried really about the question "Is [shared source] satisfactory [to us, as long as] its convenient [to Microsoft]? It's a slippery slope, to accept some form of open source, then to move back to not embracing it at all." Baker added that "open source allows choice of leadership...No choice of leadership is not healthy, and that's the core of open source model." Mundie reiterated, "We're not trying to say open source is bad. There is no effort to slander the open source model. We all have a choice and not everyone has chosen Microsoft."

Shirky brought up that "it seems to me the meta-issue is interoperability, a concern for open interfaces more than open access to the source code." But, he continued, "Microsoft has shown that interoperability is important only when Microsoft doesn't have a monopoly of that market segment." Mundie reaffirmed that interoperability is important at Microsoft. "Of course we'll publish the interface for Hailstorm and .Net. For example, Microsoft has always published the Windows Operating System APIs," Mundie said. "We're in the business of licensing intellectual property, and we need to control that in our own system, to keep people from co-opting our intellectual property."

"Like how Microsoft stole the intellectual property of Apple's GUI?" O'Reilly asked.

Behlendorf brought up another issue with Microsoft's .Net system: "We're concerned because there might be centralization of information...just as people are concerned about centralization of control of the root domain servers"

O'Reilly referred back to Mundie's opening comments about software companies, saying "most software companies are 10-15 people. They don't make money tons of money and only few players, like Microsoft, can affect the software industry. So maybe people's embracing of open source is that it's a way for them to enter and change the industry. What I'm wondering is, 'Is what's good for Microsoft really good for industry?' " Baker continued with O'Reilly's thoughts. "Microsoft has the ability to change the game, because it is big enough to do so. It can give a web browser away for free and not have a major impact in its revenue, and it seems to me that open source is only way to get innovation back because its hard to enter the game when Microsoft can change it at will."

Mundie then turned the discussion back to the issue of licensing. "Our concern with GPL is it creates a closed community." O'Reilly replied, "but so does Microsoft."

"The legal business is only just now taking a look at this," Johnson interjected. "But it's obvious that most licenses are tailored for the business needs at hand." Johnson referred to other open source licenses such as Apple's and IBM's, "and reason is, there is uncertainty in the validity of GPL, hence why these companies are tailoring their own license."

Before opening the floor to questions from the audience, O'Reilly summed up the debate: "As a layman, I can say that the GPL and Microsoft's shared source license have a lot in common. They're both strong intellectual property licenses."


Editor's Note: Wide Open News is wholly owned and operated by Red Hat, Inc.