Reading about Microsoft counsel Brad Smith's visit to the Open Source Business Conference yesterday was about what you'd expect. It's a sign that Microsoft's stance about open source has not so much evolved as crystallized -- but that's unfortunately about the limit of what I could see Microsoft doing. It can only go so far, not just because of who it is but who it has been all along.
Microsoft wants to make the Windows platform a place where open source applications can run well -- but it doesn't want to make Windows itself (or any of its other flagship products) into open source offerings. It will give away free, stripped-down versions of programs -- like SQL Server's free version, which can be used for production work -- but it stops short of anything beyond that. And rather than use the GPL or other broadly recognized open source licenses, it created its own. (It is hardly the only offender in this particular realm, but it hasn't helped.)
I find all this terribly frustrating, because I'm of the opinion that if Microsoft could make at least some of its product lines into genuine open source offerings, some really tremendous things could happen. But at the same time, I'm not sure it can.
Example: I'd like to believe that the modularization of Windows 7 that I've been hearing about (assuming it's not just vapor) could be a prelude to major change. Imagine a core version of the Windows desktop product that's entirely free, with MS charging only for extras. But I know this is a long-term pipe dream, not just because of the possible patent-encumbrance issues that MS would face -- again, look at the pain Sun endured trying to relicense Java -- but because its whole business model isn't and hasn't been built around such measures. And I have trouble seeing Microsoft switching to open source as even a partial business model without also alienating its shareholders -- something that isn't discussed much, but which has got to be a factor.
The one word that comes most to mind, then, is inertia. Expecting Microsoft to embrace open source with the same zeal as Sun or IBM is like asking an ULCC-class tanker to brake on a dime. It just isn't in its nature -- and at this rate it may never be.