Perhaps Microsoft’s most effective competitive effort to date against Linux has been its recent moves directly into the open source arena, fuzzifying the boundaries between open source and commercial software efforts and playing more like a participant than a conqueror. If it does anything at all, it makes efforts to continue characterizing Microsoft as an evildoer look like recent right-wing efforts to paint the Obama administration as the re-emergence of Joseph Stalin.
Those broad-brushstroke efforts will become even more difficult after today, now that the company has announced it has funded an independent organization — an offshoot of its Codeplex counterpart to Linux’ SourceForge — to nurture and facilitate efforts for private software companies, including itself, to contribute intellectual property to open source development efforts.
“The Codeplex Foundation provides a framework to facilitate the participation of commercial software developers in open source projects, either through intellectual property contributions to the foundation or through time volunteered under the auspices of the foundation to enable development work on open source projects,” reads the Codeplex Foundation’s mission statement, published today. “The Codeplex Foundation also provides a channel of communication from the open source community back to Foundation partners and other commercial software companies, advancing the dialog between commercial software companies and open source communities.”
The bylaws of the new foundation, published today, are essentially boilerplate legal documents enabling it to establish a board of directors and schedule meetings. But they paint a picture of a legitimate effort to bypass a future of IP litigation and legal disputes — the likes of which have reduced companies such as SCO to almost powerless carcasses — by making feasible real and substantive communication channels for developers who wish to build open source projects on the Windows platform, without fear of encroachment from commercial publishers’ legal departments.
While the Codeplex Foundation’s charter Advisory Board and Board of Directors are comprised mainly of prominent Microsoft employees, including .NET program manager Scott Hanselman, one of the first six directors is Miguel de Icaza, the popular and charismatic leader of the Mono project — the .NET-compatible platform for Linux and Mac, funded by Novell with Microsoft’s blessing.
“This is another step in the right direction for Microsoft,” de Icaza blogged today. “There are still many things that I would like to see Microsoft do, and many things that I believe Microsoft has to change to become a full member of the open source community, but it is encouraging to me to see Microsoft evolve. I hope that the CodePlex foundation will help us continue to build bridges between our communities.”
For his part, Hanselman blogged today that he’s had experience in the open source field, and knows first-hand what that community has to go through to make deals with commercial interests. “When I was working with Corillian/CheckFree, it was a challenge to get Open Source software used on big proprietary projects,” he wrote. “There was fear and confusion at all levels. We eventually got it done, and there’s open source software from then-Corillian running at large banks and small credit unions all over the world. In my opinion, if CodePlex.org succeeds, open source software will be used by more professional software developers.”
Microsoft’s move today comes just days after offering another huge olive branch to the open source community — a move which, like most others, was greeted with immediate skepticism. The company sold a package of patents related to technology used in Linux, that Microsoft might otherwise have used in litigation against Linux developers and maybe even users, to a patent resale organization. That organization — Allied Security Trust — then immediately resold those patents to the Linux-friendly Open Invention Network, in a two-part transaction that all parties admit was planned this way.
But that is not how some in the Linux community characterized the move. Yesterday, Linux Foundation Director Jim Zemlin praised OIN for, as he described it, saving the Linux-related patents from being absorbed by patent trolls — which Zemlin contends must have been Microsoft’s original motive.
“By selling patents that target Linux, Microsoft could help generate fear, uncertainty, and doubt about Linux, without needing to attack the Linux community directly in their own name,” Zemlin wrote. “This deal shows the mechanisms the Linux industry has constructed to defend Linux are working, even though the outcome also shows Microsoft to continue to act antagonistically to its customers. We can be thankful that these patents didn’t fall into the hands of a patent troll who has no customers and thus cares not about customer or public backlash.”