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The Mountain Argument That Could Be a Molehill

Aug 24, 2007, 22:30 (23 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

With all of the sturmundrang out there about Micrsoft's tentative foray into the world of open source licensing, it seems people may be missing another aspect of the discussion.

On the one side, you have people who are vehemently opposed to letting the two licenses Microsoft has submitted to the Open Source Initiative be approved as official "open source" licenses. One of the most vocal proponents of this is Groklaw's Pamela Jones, who has questioned why a company (with such a bad track record with this community's favorite licenses) should even be allowed to get near the door to enter the hallowed grounds of open source.

On the other side, you have more business-oriented folks who feel that despite past misdeeds by a company, a license is still a license, and it should be judged on its own merits under the open source definition. Matt Asay, General Manager of Alfresco, and über-blogger for CNET, has taken up this cause.

It should be noted here, for the record, that I hold both of these folks in high professional esteem. I also know they are excellent debaters, and are likely to have some interesting counterpoints to my arguments.

Despite this challenge, I do think that they are both missing a bigger picture. In the end, the success of open source software does not depend on who has what license for their products.

In the end, all that matters is the usability and the quality of the software itself.

I am coming at this from, simply stated, the users' point of view--the user who doesn't typically give a hoot what the actual license is. For most of them, the fact that Microsoft has one or two open source licenses means nothing. They are simply not going to care.

The only people who do care about such things in the user community are either (a) people predisposed to the concepts of free and open source software or (b) large enterprise shops that have the wherewithall to do their own coding and thus really want to make sure they have some measure of control over the software inside their systems.

Ah, you ask, what about those users in group A? Isn't that every user of open source technology? No, it's not, and as evidence I direct you to the millions of Firefox-on-Windows users out there, most of whom have no clue that Firefox is open source software. All they know is that it works, it's safe, and it's free of charge.

It is really the users in group B, the enterprise-level customers, that Microsoft is aiming for. Being able to legitimately produce the "Open Source" label for some of their products means a lot to Microsoft's sales and marketing departments. Certainly, we can all surely agree, "open source" will be a much better selling point than the "Vista Ready" label.

If OSI grants open-source status to those Microsoft licenses, isn't it then going to give Microsoft that marketing advantage? First off, possibly. Secondly (and here I do agree more with Matt), that's not the OSI's problem. If they were concerned about adverse affects of licenses on businesses, I doubt we'd have so many open source licenses out there in the first place.

Thirdly, I don't think the impact of Microsoft being an open source distributor of software is going to be all that great. If it were, I think we'd see outcries from Microsoft's competitors, particularly Red Hat. But I suspect Red Hat and the rest of the big Linux distributors already have come to my conclusion: Microsoft's open source software is and always will be a marketing stunt.

Truthfully, the real war against Redmond is the Open Document Format/OpenXML doucment format battle. We have seen Red Hat, IBM, Sun, and even Novell pour a lot of time and money into fighting the OpenXML standardization process. Why? Because that's the way Microsoft can keep these companies out of the corporate desktop market, where the real money can be made.

The fact that most of the commercial open source companies have been quiet about open Microsoft licenses is telling: they know that users (especially in Group B) are savvy enough to know the difference between a marketing strategy and truly quality product.

Is the licensing issue completely a waste of time? Hardly. I personally hope that the OSI finds these two licenses not within the bounds of the Open Source Definition. I also know that many developers (who care a lot more about licenses than users do) have a personal and professional stake in this debate.

Licenses are only one part--a good part--of what makes good open and free software. Let's not forget that features and quality are also part of the package, something that Microsoft products are continually lacking.