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Editor's Note: A Matter of Trust

Sep 22, 2006, 22:30 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

If someone betrays your trust, it can be a very hard road to travel to earn that trust back.

This is a lesson we have all learned during our collective lifetimes: an angry word, a careless action--we have all sown the seeds of distrust at one time of another. Hopefully, we have managed to earn that trust back. More than a few of us, I fear, can think of examples where that trust was never rebuilt, and a relationship--casual or lifelong--ended. In a word, such a loss sucks.

The most recent example of a loss of trust in the IT industry has been the recent alleged actions conducted by members of the HP board of directors against members of the press and HP's own employees--a situation that angers me beyond belief. I haven't covered it on LT, since it's not related in any way to Linux, but I have been watching the story unfold on the media sites since it started. I don't personally know any of the reporters targeted by the private investigators (supposedly under the direction of HP), save for Stephen Shankland, whom I consider a friendly colleague and a very good reporter.

But even if I did not know Stephen, the situation would still incense me, because if the allegations against HP are true, then they have betrayed a fundamental trust implied in the first amendment: that people aren't punished for telling the truth. On a less idealistic level, one wonders how the rest of the media is going to deal with HP now, knowing that they have the potential to violate privacy so cavalierly. I will wonder that the first time a company rep calls me pitching a story, that's for sure. In fact, having dealt with many inside contacts at several companies, I have made sure that at least pretexting methodologies won't be easily used to track down my personal records.

Corporations have a long history of distrusting the media. Can you imagine an environment where the media doesn't trust corporations? Sure, we have always been wary of spin and false leads--now we have to start worrying about personal attacks?

This is a relationship that will--eventually--get rebuilt. It has to, for the simple reason that the media and these companies need each other. One side needs stories and the other side need their stories told. Things will, ultimately, get better.

But in other areas, I wonder if the damage is so great that no amount of concessions on either side will ever re-start a positive relationship.

To demonstrate, let me share my first gut reaction when I read this September 18 vnunet.com headline: "Open Source Community Welcomes Microsoft Patent Pledge." Here was, in complete form, my initial thought:

We do?

The story with the headline is what we in the biz call a reaction piece. Someone says or does something really big, and reporters go out and see what the overall reaction to the really big thing might be. For better contrast, the reporter will usually go out and find reactions from those who are traditionally opposed to the initial person or group. It makes for a more balanced piece (and, let's be honest, potentially more controversial) if one goes out and, say, gets a Republican's response to a Democrat's statement than obtaining another Democrat's opinion.

So it comes as no surprise that when Microsoft announced its Microsoft Open Specification Promise on September 12, reporters wasted no time in getting reactions from members of the open source community. Indeed, it seemed perfectly natural, since Microsoft had reactions from two prominent members of the community on its OSP Web page: Prof. Lawrence Rosen and Red Hat Deputy General Counsel Mark Webbink.

Reading the vnunet story, I must say I found the comments from the open source gurus quoted more cautiously optimistic than welcoming, but any level of optimism still surprised me. Had this gesture from Redmond been enough to begin the rebuilding of trust between Microsoft and the open source community?

And, I had to ask in all honesty, is my own judgment of Microsoft so jaded and cynical that my knee-jerk reaction will always be negative?

Perhaps, but in this case, I think my initial reaction may have some substance to it. What triggered my thought was the overall conclusions from the open source community members we have heard from: that this is a small step in the right direction.

Ah, but what is the "right" direction?

If we are to be burdened with a bloated and inefficient patent system here in the US (and hopefully not in the EU), then a promise not to sue or take other legal action over potential patent infringement seems like a good short-term response. At least until we fix or euthanize the current patent system. But to do so means that open source developers are still implicitly ceding some control on the direction of their projects to Microsoft. If I am developing a SOAP application (SOAP being one of the services Microsoft indicated it wouldn't sue over), then I would be free to use techniques that might overlap with Microsoft's prior art. Or, I wouldn't get near those techniques with a 10-foot pole.

Either way, Microsoft's promise has influenced my open source project to move in one direction or another. If I move towards the art in Microsoft's SOAP patent, I have likely just made my application that much more compatible with Microsoft's technology. That isn't inherently a bad thing, but it does allow Microsoft to tell customers later on that if they're using my SOAP application, their's is fully compatible, since my app uses the same "open" standards. Or, if I have shied away from their art, a salesperson from Redmond could cite that as a potential flaw in my application.

Of course, this is all moot if my application far exceeds the capabilities of Redmond's. If it's really good, my application will become the new standard that will set the tone of the market. See Firefox for a recent example of how that works.

In a very real sense, Microsoft has indeed opened the doors to the Cathedral and entered the Bazaar. But their stall in the Bazaar is very big and flashy, and their products very enticing--yet still not open source. How long before their presence in the Bazaar changes the very nature of the Bazaar itself? If the community is cautious, and utterly straightforward about intentions, then the answer is never.

It could be possible to build a trusting relationship with Microsoft, someday. Just so long as we all remember that trust is a two-way street, and in this case, this will be a very long street to build.