Microsoft and Openness: Can It Really Commit?

Microsoft's announcement last week that it was forming a wholly owned subsidiary dedicated to forging stronger ties with the open source world took more than a few observers by surprise.

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After all, this is the company that once called open source software a “cancer,” that has asserted repeated patent claims against Linux and other open source software, and that has resorted to a multiplicity of scare tactics to drive potential users away from open source alternatives to its own products.

Nevertheless, from Red Hat's perspective, Microsoft's latest move is a good thing that could benefit everyone.

'A Strategic Way to Innovate'

“Open source and open standards give customers and developers freedom,” wrote the Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) team in a blog post on the topic on Tuesday morning. “Interoperability makes more possible. Our hope is that this formal announcement signals the commitment of Microsoft to engage with open source communities in a way that will ultimately provide choice in the marketplace.”

With its own RHEL product approaching its 10th anniversary next month, Red Hat--perhaps the best exemplar of open source's business success--noted that that success didn't come easily.

“It was not without opposition,” the blog post explains in what could be interpreted as a reference to Microsoft itself.

Still, “a rising tide lifts all ships,” the post adds, and “we now see the world's leading technology providers investing in open source as a strategic way to innovate.”

Red Hat concluded its post by offering its help to Microsoft in what it says will be “a radical shift” for the Redmond software giant.

'Nobody Would Have Thought'

Indeed, “radical” it will surely be, if Microsoft truly approaches this in a committed way.

I honestly hope that's how it plays out, but it's hard not to be cynical. Back in 2010 the company was already proclaiming its “love” for open source, yet it has continued its legal assault on multiple fronts.

Its Secure Boot plans for Windows 8 have caused considerable concern among free software users, and--just this week--a ComputerworldUK investigation has begun to expose some of the many ways in which Microsoft has fought against open standards over the years.

At the same time, of course, the company was recently named one of the top 20 contributors to the Linux kernel, and it's made a growing number of concessions to open source software in recent months, including allowing it in its Windows Store, hosting open source Hadoop on its Azure cloud service, and adding Git support to its CodePlex repository, for example.

“Nobody would have thought the open source ecosystem would be as important to Microsoft as it has become now," wrote CodePlex program manager Mark Groves in a blog post announcing the Git support last month.

That, I think, is surely the heart of the issue: Openness has become too big a force for Microsoft to ignore. The big question now is, will it really be able to change and commit to this new way of thinking?

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