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.

Tags Linuxlinux.conf.auopen sourcegplMicrosoftsambaJeremy Allison

More about ApacheCA TechnologiesEuropean CommissionGoogleIBM AustraliaIBM AustraliaISOLinuxMicrosoftMITNovellNUTomTom

10 Comments

OzOle

1

Terrific insightful comments!

I wish I could have attended the Linux Conference, I would dearly have loved to shake Jeremy Allison's hand and thank him in person.

Dontee

2

Well said, OzOle! The open source community must stand firm and resist Microsoft's attempts to pick off individual companies.

homer

3

A big Elephant Gun is what is needed. If only there was something equivalent in this analogy.

Pierre

4

Why do you think Novell or Tom-Tom have paid royalties for (ghost) patents "located in the Linux kernel"?

It does not take a rocket-scientist to make the relation with the 2 millions line of DRM code injected into the Linux kernel by MICROSOFT... with the benediction of Linus himself.

As long as something is twisted in the kingdom of open-source, don't be surprised to see the hierarchy unchanged...

MPS

5

The reason Microsoft has started delivering on the patent threat is because it is has started losing. Firefox, OpenOffice, Linux netbooks, Android etc. have been eating into Microsoft market share, forcing open Microsoft's proprietary standards and protocol lock-in. Microsoft's own proprietary standards - .NET and Silverlight, and OOXML are in the doldrums as a result. Content providers cannot afford to lock out 20%-30% of potential customers, so they are increasingly putting content into open or cross platform formats like standard HTML/AJAX, FLASH, ODF, PDF, etc. instead of Microsoft's lock-in formats.

The solution to the attacks from Microsoft is therefore not to slack off but to intensify the assault on monopoly and closed proprietary standards.

Sarah

6

Whilst a good article it skips over another software patent battle that I feel is more ominous than the MS v TomTom case. Microsoft themselves were found to be infringing a small Candaian companies patents in a recent version of Office (2003? 2007?).

Whilst Microsoft have made a lot of noise about Linux infringing ITS patents, it so far picked a company that is removed from the mainstream Linux arena... it didn't go after RedHat or Canonical, the company itself loosing a battle suggests that software patents are going to be a major issue for any software vendor.

How many submarines are waiting to surface? Nobody knows. And it could just as easily cripple MS as it could RH or IBM when they do.

hummm

7

If MS would stop putting so much effort into undermining Linux/GPL with .NET, OOXML, IE specific HTML, ActiveX windows only media format, and the list goes on and on and instead focused on making their OS more secure and not such a hardware resource hog then I bet their OS market share would increase and they would probably not be so despised and their would probably not be such world wide effort to break free from their products just as their is not for products from Oracle.

Ariel Alegre

8

I' ve translated the article into spanish. A non profit organization www.solar.org.ar wants tu publish it. I request your authorization.

Thanks!
Ariel Alegre
INTI www.inti.gob.ar

Damion

9

Historically, Microsoft did not have the superior product, so that is not how the Mirco$oft empire came to power. Microsoft came to power through aggressive and arguably transgressive business tactics. Keep that in mind. In regards to the future, I cite the adage that a tiger does not change its stripes.

HandyGandy

10

Allison is a bit off the mark.

When it comes to individual battles inside Microsoft one can't tell which side will win, the pro FOSS or the anti FOSS, but when it comes to the make or break issues we know how Microsoft will behave. Those with a controlling interest will get their way.
Who might that be? You guessed it... Gates and Ballmer. Any question on how they will vote?

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