Illuminating the elephant in the open source room

Open-source proponent, Jeremy Allison, outlines why should Linux users care about Microsoft's tactics

Jeremy Allison Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jeremy_allison.jpg

Jeremy Allison Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jeremy_allison.jpg

Microsoft is an elephant that needs to be turned to stop it trampling the open source community, according to a vocal critic of the software giant's approach to software patents.

Speaking at the annual Linux.conf.au event, which is being held in Wellington, New Zealand, one of the lead developers for the Samba Team and Google employee, Jeremy Allison, described Microsoft as a real threat to the open source community.

"We have a system that is absolutely free that we can do anything with, so why are we so obsessed with picking on Microsoft?" Allison asked the audience. "Shouldn't we leave the elephant alone and stop poking it with sticks? Well, the problem is they aren't going to leave us alone."

Allison was quick to point out that his comments at the Linux.conf.au address are his own views and not those of his employer. In December 2006, Allison, a famed open-source proponent, resigned his position at Novell to join Google in protest over the company's Linux-Windows interoperability deal with Microsoft.

In comments published at the time, Allison called Novell's deal with Microsoft "a mistake ... [that] will be damaging to Novell's success in the future." He said that even if the deal — which involved Novell paying Microsoft for patents — did not violate the GNU General Public License (GPL), it violated "the intent of the GPL”.

(Read a 2007 interview between Allison and LinuxWorld's Don Marti on the topic.)

Just over three years later, Allison maintains the same threat to the GPL and the wider open source community remains. In his presentation, streamed from the Linux.conf.au website, Allison said despite some changes to Microsoft's personnel the company continued to refer to GPL Linux implementations as "infestations".

"Which kind of fits me as I always thought of myself as the cockroach in the wall when I started," he joked.

"But it is really not a sign of a company that is peacefully coexisting, adopting free software, trying to make money out of it like, for example, IBM or Google for that matter."

While acknowledging that many within Microsoft genuinely support free software, Allison went on to say the vendor has its own internal battles between business units that make it hard for outsiders to predict its actions.

"Microsoft is often compared to the Star Trek icon 'The Borg'. You have this wonderful little Patrick Stewart icon with his Borg headgear on whenever you have Microsoft on a Slashdot story," he said referring to the popular science fiction series and IT website. "I actually think that is completely wrong. We are the Borg — we really are. We integrate anyone's code, we can absorb code, we can take it, modify it, put it out there, re-purpose it — we are wonderful integrators of everyone's technology. But we are much friendlier."

The presentation moved on to looking at the historical view of Microsoft's engagement with open source — including the "Halloween" memos by Eric Raymond — before touching on three case studies which show how the vendor poses a threat to the GPL license: The OOXML standard; attempts to "corrupt" the open Internet; and the Tom Tom lawsuit.

(See a slideshow of this year's LCA.)

In November 2008, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the specification for a Microsoft-created file format, Office Open XML (OOXML), which caused bitter debate during its path to become an international standard.

OOXML was opposed by many on the grounds it was unnecessary, as software makers could use OpenDocument Format (ODF), a less complicated office software format that was already an international standard.

Allison contends the OOXML case shows the lengths Microsoft will go to in order to create lock-in, where consumers are forced to buy software or hardware from one vendor or its partners and freedom of choice is restricted.

"One of the worst things that happened out of that, [is that the ISO] which was previously respected by people that didn't know it so well, became absolutely despised," he said. "There are some countries now thinking of pulling out [of ISO] because it is simply not worth participating in a process that is so obviously corrupted."

However, the result was followed by two European Commission anti-trust probes into Microsoft's behaviour which led to a settlement where the software giant had to offer customers a choice of internet browsers.

The second probe into Microsoft's limiting of file format choices in its Office productivity suite also led to the vendor changing track. In the end, the ODF and other non-proprietary formats were offered to consumers to fend off European Union (EU) antitrust regulators and block massive fines.

For Allison, Microsoft's actions in both cases are symbolic of its distaste for free software principles and its efforts to maintain a stranglehold on much of the desktop market.

In the second case study, Allison argued Microsoft had tried to corrupt the open Internet by, among other things: Refusing to follow HTML standards and creating Internet Explorer-only websites; pushing its Windows-only media format; aiming to make ActiveX the only way to develop applications; and trying to replace Java with .Net.

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