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Does Microsoft really love open source?

Paul Rubens | Aug. 22, 2014
Microsoft is involved in many major open source projects, including Hadoop and Docker. What's motivating the company to abandon its 'proprietary-only' roots?

Microsoft and Open Source

Microsoft's relationship with the open source movement has undergone an extraordinary transformation over the last few years, from a deep hostility to what can only be described as an embrace.

One specific target of its hatred was the GNU General Public License (GPL), under which much open source software is made available. "The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source," Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's ex-CEO, said erroneously in a Chicago Sun-Timesinterview back in 2001.

The open source Linux, which threatened the company's Windows Server operating systems, was another Microsoft target. "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches," Baller said in the same interview.

What Microsoft is up to now was unthinkable back then. Today Microsoft is involved with open source community. It participates in open source projects. It has open sourced some of its formerly proprietary software, such as parts of its ASP.NET Web application framework, the Windows Phone toolkit and the Azure .NET software development kit. It has set up CodePlex, a free open source project hosting site.

Going one stage further, the company has established Microsoft Open Technologies Inc. (Open Tech), a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft "focused on advancing Microsoft's commitment to openness across the company and throughout the industry."

What does Microsoft mean by "openness"? "Openness is much more than just open source. It also includes interoperability and open standards," says Gianugo Rabellino, senior director of Open Source communities at Open Tech. This triumvirate of open source, open standards and interoperability is a refrain that Rabellino -- and, indeed, Microsoft -- keeps coming back to.

Software Market Changed, So Microsoft Changed, Too
The big question: Why the change? Why the complete about-face when it comes to open source software from deep hostility to open embrace?

"The market has changed," says Rabellino, saying that 2002 was very different than today. "Everyone is adapting. So is Microsoft."

Perhaps more tellingly, Rabellino hints that Microsoft software isn't as fundamental to the way organizations work today as it used to be. Many companies get their software as a service from the cloud. Microsoft can no longer call all the shots. It needs to cooperate to continue.

"The cloud is shipping workflows to people, so the relevance of the software stack beneath is less important," Rabellino says. "What's important is open APIs."

Microsoft is in the business of making money, so it's possible that it's only involving itself with open source software and openness in general because it sees it as the best strategy to make money. That's probably the case -- not that there's anything wrong with that.


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