Microsoft trying to get code open-source certified

After months of antagonizing the open-source community, Microsoft Corp. now appears to be trying to engage it by seeking an official stamp of approval for the licenses that the company uses to share its own software and source code.

During a keynote speech at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland, Ore., on Thursday, Bill Hilf, Microsoft’s general manager of platform strategy, said that the software vendor is submitting its so-called shared source licenses to the Open Source Initiative for certification as true open-source licenses.

The plans were also detailed on Port 25, a blog written by workers at Microsoft’s Open Source Software Lab.

Neither OSI President Michael Tiemann nor Mark Radcliffe, the organization’s general counsel, returned e-mails and calls seeking comment on Microsoft’s announcement.

Russ Nelson, who chairs the OSI’s license approval committee, said via e-mail that he expects Microsoft to submit its shared source licenses for approval within a week or so, but he didn’t comment further.

Initial reaction by outside commentators tended toward the positive.

“This is a huge, long-awaited move,” Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc., wrote in his blog. If the shared source licenses are accepted by the OSI, he added, “it will be a lot harder to draw a bright line between Microsoft and the open-source community.” O’Reilly Media sponsored the conference at which Hilf made the announcement.

In his blog on CNET Networks Inc.’s Web site, open-source executive and OSI board member Matt Asay said that seeking the group’s approval shows that Microsoft “respects the community.”

“I welcome this move by Microsoft,” Asay wrote. “It continues to impress me as being one of the few big companies that truly understands open source, even if I don’t always like how it works with the open-source community.”

Zack Urlocker, vice president of marketing at open-source database vendor MySQL AB, also applauded Microsoft’s plan in a blog entry on the Web site of InfoWorld, a sister publication of Computerworld.

“Although a bit late to the party, I think this is still a good step on Microsoft’s part,” Urlocker wrote. “It shows that they appreciate there’s a community outside of Microsoft and [that] they are adapting their business practices and licensing in order to be successful there. That, to me, is highly significant.”

Microsoft has released 650 internally developed software programs to the general public via its shared source program, according to Hilf.

But don’t expect Microsoft to release open-source versions of products such as Windows or Office anytime soon. Most of the products released under the shared source licenses are lesser-known applications hosted on Microsoft’s CodePlex site, the company’s equivalent to SourceForge Inc.’s popular open-source development site.

Nonetheless, the latest move may come as a surprise to many who have watched Microsoft over the past year. For example, the software vendor has pushed Linux vendors to sign controversial cross-licensing deals in order to avoid any potential legal repercussions from Microsoft’s claims that Linux and other open-source products infringe on 235 of its patents.

Microsoft has reached agreements with Novell Inc. and two other vendors, but it was rebuffed by three other companies, including Red Hat Inc. — raising the specter of a split within the Linux camp.

And Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who once called Linux “a cancer,” further fanned the flames last fall by declaring that because of the alleged infringement of the software vendor’s intellectual property, “every Linux customer basically has an undisclosed balance-sheet liability.”

Microsoft wouldn’t be the first vendor not normally associated with open-source technology to have licenses approved by the OSI. Among the 50 or so software licenses that the group has certified are ones submitted by companies such as Apple Inc., CA Inc., Nokia Corp., RealNetworks Inc. and Sybase Inc.

Other OSI-approved licenses include the GNU General Public License and the Mozilla Public License, which is used with the Firefox Web browser.

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