Editor's Note: A Matter of Trust
Sep 22, 2006, 22:30 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
How to Help Your Business Become an AI Early Adopter
By Brian Proffitt
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
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
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:
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
from two prominent members of the community on its OSP Web
page: Prof. Lawrence Rosen and Red Hat Deputy General Counsel Mark
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
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