Microsoft and open-source backers: best 'frenemies' forever

License approvals, patent claims characterize complicated relationship between two sides

There's a scene in the 2004 movie Mean Girls in which the most popular girl in the film's fictional high school finds out that a friend who now is a fast-rising social rival plans to throw a party without inviting her.

"Who does she think she is?" sniffs the suddenly-threatened clique leader -- or "Queen Bee," in the movie's parlance. "I, like, 'invented' her, you know what I mean?"

Take away the Valley Girl lingo and substitute "open-source" for "she," and you have an approximation of Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer's declaration almost exactly one year ago that Linux (playing the role of the movie's "Wannabe") "uses our intellectual property."

Ballmer's statement -- along with follow-up claims by Microsoft executives that they had found violations of 235 patents in Linux and other open-source software -- caused a sudden refrosting of what had been a slowly thawing relationship between the company and the open-source community.

Over the past several years, Microsoft -- whose combative CEO once called Linux a "cancer" from an intellectual property standpoint -- has set up its own open-source testing lab, begun hosting open-source projects for free on its CodePlex Web site and signed partnership deals with open-source vendors such as Red Hat Inc.'s JBoss Inc. division, MySQL AB, SugarCRM Inc., XenSource Inc. and Zend Technologies Inc.

But by dangling the threat of patent-infringement lawsuits over the heads of users and vendors alike, "Microsoft opened up a can of worms with the open-source community that they have been attempting to close since then," said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif.

So the two sides remain wary "frenemies." And their friend-or-foe relationship has continued to evolve in both directions this month.

Microsoft did finally get an invitation of sorts to the open-source party on Oct. 10, when the Open Source Initiative (OSI) approved two of its software licenses as valid means of distributing open-source technologies.

The company also continues to try to ingratiate itself with open-source backers. At the Web 2.0 Summit several days after the approval of the licenses by the OSI, Ballmer promised an audience composed primarily of executives from high-tech start-ups that Microsoft would "do some buying of companies that are built around open-source products." That is something the software vendor has never done before, despite its long track record of acquiring technologies and swallowing start-ups.

And on Monday, Microsoft agreed to give developers of open-source workgroup server products access to Windows interoperability information and to slash the royalties that it will charge for using the information from 5.95 percent of a product's revenue to 0.4 percent. But that agreement was a grudging one, made to finally comply with a 2004 antitrust ruling by the European Commission.

Microsoft also announced a collaboration and "intellectual property assurance" deal with Turbolinux Inc. on Monday -- the latest in a series of controversial licensing agreements that has split the Linux camp between vendors that have agreed to the terms and others that have said they aren't interested in doing so.

Nobody believes that Microsoft has suddenly displaced IBM as the BFF -- best friend forever -- of open-source vendors.

Dave Gynn, director of enterprise tools and frameworks at open-source consulting firm Optaros Inc., said he thinks Microsoft is carefully choosing open-source partnerships that it believes will limit the methodology's overall spread.

"Microsoft only does one partnership in each space to ensure there is always one open-source option, though they try not to make it more attractive than their own offering," Gynn said. If Microsoft really wanted to promote interoperability, he added, the company "wouldn't go and announce a partnership. It would just go and do it."

King also remains skeptical about Microsoft's intentions. The company "is endeavoring to be friends with customers that are purchasing heterogeneous computing solutions and using Linux," he said. "However, I'm not sure that makes them a friend of Linux." And, he noted, Microsoft's patent claims are still an issue.

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