Has Microsoft finally embraced open source?

By implementing Git in its developer tools, Microsoft is using GPL-licensed software -- and perhaps ending its war on open source

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Corporate confusion

Does this mean the war is over? No -- in the same week, Microsoft mounted an attack in Germany on the City of Munich, citing a secret report it had commissioned from HP Consulting and claiming the Munich city government was not telling the truth about the costs of its Linux-based desktop system. Commissioning a report to discredit a noncustomer's use of open source is hardly the act of a supporter.

The reason for this apparent hypocrisy is no company of any scale acts as a single entity. Companies may be regarded as if they are a single person for some legal purposes, but that legal fiction is a metaphor that should not be stretched beyond its purpose of simplifying property ownership and taxation. Companies are not people; they are mechanisms serving their shareholders. I've worked for three giant global corporations in my career, and every one of them has been a network of warring factions and differing intentions.

Corporations don't act consistently because every time you encounter them, you're actually dealing with a different unit within the corporation, a different team within a unit, a different employee within a team. A corporation is a community, too. These real people come with their own experiences, education, methods, and motivations, and they approach problems and opportunities their own way. For there to be a consistent approach, either the workforce has to be uniform to the point of cloning or their actions have to be known, understood, and regulated by others in the corporation. For that to happen, someone somewhere with authority over their work needs to believe it is in their interests to regulate. Most of the time that doesn't happen, especially without a designated and empowered executive ensuring open source consistency.

The winding road to enlightenment
Microsoft is on a long march toward accepting the market inevitability of open source, but the right foot doesn't always know what the left is doing. The company is still fighting open source on the desktop, while staying mostly silent about its taxation of open source usage (in the form of "royalties" for supposed software patent infringements, in return for promising not to litigate). Other teams see the wisdom of nonconfrontation, while some -- such as the developer tools team -- seems to want to engage in a positive way.

When corporations embark on such a journey, it remains smart and reasonable for communities to assume that previous behavior will continue until a clear pattern of experience shows otherwise. Just because part of a company is engaging positively, that doesn't automatically fix a decade of hostility and dirty tricks. The "bad karma" those collective actions earned will take a while to reverse -- maybe as much time as was spent earning it in the first place.

Corporations can change. But without an adjustment of overall leadership coupled with a spreading shift of corporate culture, it's unlikely open source communities will -- or should -- acknowledge that change. We need to see a consistent demonstration of good faith from all parts of the corporation, not just the parts with a focus on open source.

This article, "Has Microsoft finally embraced open source?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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