Microsoft's Open-Source Strategy Coming Into Focus

If Microsoft and OSI come to terms, IT organizations should not interpret this as a radical shift in Microsoft's long-term business strategies, analysts suggest.
Microsoft's decision to submit its shared source licenses to the Open Source Initiative for approval sends a strong signal that the company has a clearer strategy for working with the open-source community, which it has treated as an adversary for years, experts say.

Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy said last week at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland, Ore., that Microsoft would submit three licenses from its Shared Source Initiative to the OSI for certification as true open source licenses.

"Microsoft and the OSI are currently in active discussion on this and additional details will be made available in the coming weeks," Hilf said in a statement e-mailed Monday.

The warming relations reflects a maturity on both sides, driven by corporations demanding more interoperability between Microsoft software, particularly Windows, and open source technology. "Although open source at Microsoft and the OSI are two different animals, I would submit to you that both are at a point in their maturity where their constituencies need to become more involved to maintain growth In Microsoft's case, the reason is simple: Customers. IT professionals told us they wanted both platform choices and platform interoperability," Hilf said in Port 25, a blog set up by Microsoft's Open Source Software Lab.

Dan Kusnetzky, analyst for the Kusnetzky Group, said Microsoft, like IBM, Oracle and other commercial vendors, is acknowledging that open source software has a permanent place in IT systems.

"Microsoft is expressing publicly that open source software and open source licensing is important in the data center," he said. "This move indicates that open source software is in many data centers, and they need tools to respond to that."

In a soon-to-be published research note, Gartner analyst Mark Driver said Microsoft's latest move is an indication that the company recognizes that open source is more than just Linux and other software that compete directly with Microsoft products. "It has assumed that any direct investment or interaction with OSS (open source software) would send a false signal to the industry regard its long-term business strategies, (which is) a heavy focus on intellectual property investment and control," Driver said. "Consequently, Microsoft's messaging regarding open source has been inconsistent and confusing."

Also getting in the way, according to Driver, has been a "high degree of animosity" between the OSI and Microsoft. "Many proponents within the OSS (open source software) community have championed themselves as anti-Microsoft evangelists and Microsoft has been openly critical of open source on numerous occasions as well." Driver credits Hilf and the Open Source Laboratory with changing Microsoft thinking internally, "This announcement now sends a strong signal that Microsoft is better able to clearly articulate its larger open source strategy with less fear of sending mixed messages to the industry moving forward."

Nevertheless, Driver told InformationWeek that working with the OSI is a necessary step in a long journey for Microsoft. "It's going to take them years to show that they're serious about their open-source strategy," he said.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Microsoft and the OSI would come to terms. But assuming they do, IT organizations should not interpret this as "radical shifts in Microsoft's long-term business strategies."

"Gartner believes Microsoft will remain challenged in positioning its core assets both in support of and in competition to open source solutions," Driver wrote. "These announcements will however remove considerable roadblocks in better executing these strategies in coming years."

Despite working with the OSI, many open-source advocates are unlikely to change their anti-Microsoft feelings anytime soon. A major point of contention has been Microsoft's insistence that Linux and other open-source technologies infringe on 235 of its patents. The company has signed licensing agreements with Novell and other companies, while other Linux distributors, such as Red Hat, have refused to make similar deals.

It's also uncertain how far Microsoft will go in licensing technology under an OSI-approved license. Most of the applications covered under the shared-source licenses are lesser-known applications found on Microsoft's CodePlex site. It's highly unlikely Microsoft would consider open source versions of Windows or Office, which generate large portions of the company's revenues and represent huge investments in intellectual property.