Is Microsoft a friend or foe of open source? Going by the company's actions, Microsoft can't seem to decide whether to make love or war. But if it's war, Microsoft appears to lack the legal weaponry to defeat or even disturb its adversaries.
On one hand, Microsoft has extended an olive branch to the open source community, donating code to projects and backing big-name open source organizations like the Apache Software Foundation as part of an effort to do more than ever to acknowledge that it must work alongside open source, not fight it.
[ Discover where open source is heading from the movement's leaders in InfoWorld's "state of open source" roundtable. ]
On the other, it has continued to seek payments for patents it holds that are found in open source technologies and in general uphold its proprietary intellectual property licensing strategy -- the opposite of the philosophy behind open source. Microsoft has long held patent-infringement and possible litigation over the heads of open source vendors, at one time claiming that Linux infringed on more than 230 of its patents.
Whatever dastardly plans Microsoft may have in reserve, open source companies, developers, and proponents say it doesn't really matter. With open source a powerful business model and force in its own right, they are more secure than ever that the software giant poses no real threat to their movement.
It will take more than Microsoft to stop the momentum that open source -- in particular Linux, which powers some of the largest networks in the world, including Google's -- has in the market, they say.
"Is its future threatened? No. Open source isn't going anywhere," says Stephen O'Grady, an analyst with RedMonk. Even if Microsoft were to assert all of the patents the company claims to hold in Linux and other open source projects -- which it would have a hard time doing -- it still could not stop developers from using open source tools and software nor stop companies from adopting open source business models, he adds. "[Open source] is a style and an approach and a model that is here to stay," O'Grady says.
Real change at Microsoft in accepting open source
Most recently, Microsoft settled a patent-infringement case it filed against GPS device maker TomTom over patents that involved TomTom's implementation of Linux, a case that stirred up old feelings among open source companies that Microsoft plans to reignite a patent fight against them. Microsoft insisted the TomTom suit was a patent issue and not any specific grievance against Linux or open source software.
Most of the Linux community accepted that assessment, but leaders such as Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, says that any patent litigation against a technology that involves open source will keep the community wary. "It's just another example in the mind of an open source developer that this is not a positive company to be jointly working on development projects with," he adds.