"Microsoft" and "open source" have, for a long time, not been two words you would typically breathe in the same sentence. And now I find myself reading an IWeek piece in which one of Microsoft's open-source point men, Bill Hilf, speaks up on both subjects.
I'd been aware of Hilf and his position at Microsoft before, thanks to (among other things) the Port 25 blog, where he and other Microsoft folks post about their work in that company's open-source lab. Here and there, Microsoft is doing some very good work with certain open-source vendors -- the PHP folks come to mind, for instance. The good stuff is the nitty-gritty. But the policy-level material, as always, remains problematic.
A few of Hilf's comments stood out as examples of both of these tendencies, sometimes simultaneously. He cited Red Hat Enterprise Linux as an example of a direct competitor -- not specifically because of its internal features, but as a platform on which people could run open-source software. That's been the main horn Hilf has been blowing -- that Windows can and should be a platform on which people run open-source products of many kinds, from the aforementioned PHP to MySQL to you-name-it. As long as Microsoft stays on that particular subject, it will do just fine.
It's when Microsoft goes further afield -- like its ongoing Linux patent Catch-22 (evidently it learned from SCO that you can't just sue people outright without opening 55-gallon drums of worms) that things get hairy all over again. But when you get down to it, I'm not sure Microsoft's attitude toward open source is all that different from many other companies whose main interest isn't in open source per se, but in getting what they can from open source. The attitude, spoken or not, is: What's in it for us?
It's looking to open source to see what it can get out of it, just like anyone else. It just happens to be in a position that makes that behavior all the more influential on the software world as a whole.
Another thing that emerged from reading that piece was a clearer picture of the kind of monopoly Microsoft has, or wants to have: a support monopoly. As long as its offerings remain closed-source and are kept up-to-date by them, Microsoft is the only one who can continue to legitimately claim to support them, and that's how it wants it. One possible contrast for this was a recent bit of friction between Oracle and Red Hat, where Oracle submitted patches for what it felt were Linux bugs and Red Hat disputed the issue. I read elsewhere a trenchant criticism of the Linux world as a whole that asserted the single biggest problem is the near-total lack of accountability for fixing some of the simplest things. To use a piece of parlance I hate, Microsoft (and Apple, too) are deeply reluctant to "allow their brands to be diffused".
I finally wondered if the things Microsoft does with (and to) open source, both good and bad, may well serve as models for future behavior by other companies. Not everyone who uses open source, or even supports open source (even if indirectly) is going to be a friend of open source -- at least, not a friend in the way most open-source supporters would like them to be. But that goes with the territory. If you put it out there for everyone to use and work with and potentially support, that means everyone. Microsoft included.