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The Badger Game

Jul 13, 2007, 22:30 (10 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

For the past couple of weeks, I have been more than a little pensive about the nature of the new GNU General Public License (v3). Since the last set of drafts have come out, I have been concerned that the whole thing seems obstructionist to what I believe we should be focusing on: getting computers to work together and moving past this whole will-they-won't-they interoperability nonsense.

Lately, certain events have made me stop and see the problem more from the side of the free/open source software developers. The GPLv3 may, at first, seem like a legal bouncer to keep Microsoft and other vendors out of the open source club. I must admit, that's how I felt about it. Perhaps, looking past that analogy, the real purpose of the new license is to let the proprietary vendors in--but make darn sure they behave themselves.

Microsoft's own efforts to extol Open XML as an open standard to various institutions reminded me this week that throughout all of it's history, the company's primary goal is to get and retain as much of the IT market share as it can, by hook or by crook. This has cast the efforts of the GPLv3 framers as less obstructionist and more protectionist. If proprietary vendors want to play in the open source sandbox, then they need to know that they have to share the toys fairly.

That said, I'd like to address another concern about the aforementioned Open XML "standard." While I agree that interoperability is important, why is it so important that said interoperability has to be on Microsoft's terms? In all of the hullabaloo about Linux vendors making patent protection agreements for their customers, we may have missed the real reason for Redmond's largess: getting those vendors to opt to work on Open XML translators for OpenOffice.org.

It should have been the other way around. Xandros, Linspire, Turbolinux, and Novell should have stood their ground and insisted the interoperability work be to get Microsoft Office to work with the Open Document Format (ODF). Now we have the untenable situation where Linux vendors are implicitly endorsing the proprietary (because that's what it is, make no mistake) Open XML format.

And you know how that will play out: if anyone actually wakes up and starts to ask real questions about the openness of Open XML, all Microsoft has to say is "look, even Linux vendors recognize how important Open XML is. They must think it's better than ODF!"

So, by threatening everything and promising nothing (because would Microsoft really sue anyone for patents, knowing how many competitors in the Linux community have patents of their own?), Microsoft has skillfully managed to get open source players to endorse Open XML. A variant of the classic Badger Game if I ever heard one.

Faced with cons like this, I am beginning to realize that having something like the GPLv3 around is a very good idea. Even though the new GPL could not have prevented this scam, it may help in the future.