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July 13, 2001
4 Min Read
Open-source software continues to gain popularity for its low-cost, malleable code and plethora of free tools. In response, Microsoft in recent weeks has stepped up criticism of the software, saying it's hazardous to companies' intellectual property. As is often the case when it comes to sparring in the software industry, Microsoft's arguments are rooted in fact but rife with hyperbole.
Microsoft's censure of the Linux operating system and other open-source tools took on renewed fervor in early May when senior VP Craig Mundie, in a speech at New York University's Stern School of Business, called the development model bad for business. Mostly, Mundie denounced the popular GNU General Public License that governs the use of Linux and other open-source packages, including compilers, debuggers, and the Emacs text editor.
Under terms of the General Public License, companies that modify the source code of a program and redistribute the resulting software must make their changes available in the public domain. This is potentially problematic for the small percentage of companies that modify the Linux kernel, which is protected by the GPL, and write interfaces between their own apps and the modified source code. "This viral aspect of the GPL poses a threat to the intellectual property of any organization making use of it," Mundie said, adding that the license "undermines" commercial software development by making developers give their intellectual property away free.
He's not the only Microsoft executive who's trashing Linux. CEO Steve Ballmer has called Linux "a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual-property sense to everything it touches." Group VP Jim Allchin earlier this year said open-source software compromised American intellectual-property law.
As an alternative, Microsoft is touting an approach it calls "shared-source" programming, which lets select customers, computer hardware and chip manufacturers, and independent software developers view--but not modify--Microsoft's Windows source code and report bugs to the company. "People do have legitimate needs to have access to the source of some of our products," says Mundie. Microsoft said last month that it's teaming with Corel Corp. to develop a shared-source version of its C# programming language and Common Language Infrastructure runtime, designed to run on Windows and the open-source FreeBSD operating system. But no one can use the software commercially; it's for "academic, research, debugging, and learning purposes," Microsoft says. Microsoft's critics call shared source a one-way street, since the vendor is asking partners to clean up its software while prohibiting them from changing it. Even some Microsoft officials are mystified, saying shared-source practices have been its modus operandi for years. What's clear is that the vendor has singled out for criticism the restrictive GPL as Linux gains market share on low-end Intel servers. Research firm International Data Corp. estimates that Linux accounted for 27% of all new operating-system licenses sold worldwide last year. Stacey Quandt, an analyst at Giga Information Group, says Microsoft's arguments amount to the company "battling Linux and using the GPL as another point of attack." Most business customers of software covered by the GPL won't compromise homegrown software by running it alongside Linux, she adds. Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer at Red Hat Inc., guesses that fewer than 10% of Red Hat Linux customers are modifying the company's software. "If you use Linux the way you use Microsoft software, you won't have GPL issues," he says. For many companies, rewriting open-source code isn't the reason they chose such software. More often, it's the low cost of Linux and other packages. "In terms of going in and hacking the kernel to do Amazon-specific things, we won't do that," says Charlie Bell, VP of technology infrastructure at Amazon.com Inc. "The more variation you get, the harder your environment is to support." Customers put off by even the specter of linking their applications to modified GPL source code can also choose less-restrictive open-source licenses, such as the Berkeley Software Distribution operating systems and MIT X, which governs the X Windows host interface software. Apple Computer's Mac OS X, for example, is based on FreeBSD, a Berkeley license version of Unix. Microsoft's Hotmail E-mail service ran for several years on FreeBSD and the open-source Apache Web server. Computer vendors that support open-source software have their own advice for customers. Pete Morowski, VP of software at Dell Computer, recommends that customers treat Linux as a "black box," interfacing with it only via standard, published calls. "As more application vendors port their apps to Linux, you're going to see a greater mix of open-source and proprietary software," he says. "People really have to pay attention to the licensing model."
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