Microsoft's open source subsidiary celebrates its first year

Microsoft Open Technologies is plenty busy. But Microsoft still hasn't explained why a separate entity was needed

It's party time for Microsoft. The subsidiary it set up to handle encounters with the open source community is a year old, and the bunting is up at its lab in Silicon Valley ready for all comers to meet with the top brass.

MOT (Microsoft Open Technologies) was established last year under the leadership of standards veteran Jean Paoli as a vehicle for Microsoft's open source ambitions. Back then, I surmised its main role would be to act as a firewall to isolate Microsoft from the risks of open source the company has long alleged.

How did it work out? From a public image perspective, the subsidiary seems to feel its first year has been one of progress and success. But the open invitation didn't mention any specific achievements being celebrated. What is it the group has spent this first year doing?

To find out, I had a chat with Gianugo Rabellino, the subsidiary's evangelism team leader. He was keen to emphasize how MOT's independence enabled it to adopt the practices of the communities it engages. He cited Microsoft's participation in the W3C Pointer Events activity as a great example, with the staff at MOT able to both co-chair the working group and offer code to WebKit much more rapidly than would have been possible as a part of Microsoft proper. Gianugo told me MOT had shipped 41 projects like that in the last year and was now looking after projects like Azure services for Android. He described the team as an engineering organization working both on open source projects and in standards bodies, in pursuit of "interoperability."

Despite the background of some of the higher-profile staff, such as Jean Paoli, they are not involved in Microsoft Office and its controversial tangle with Open Document Format and other document standards. Instead, they focus on new projects, leaving established relationships to established product groups. Thus the virtualization team looks after Linux kernel patches, and responsibility for engagement with projects like Hadoop rests elsewhere.

But why a subsidiary?
While all this is worthy and laudable stuff, did Microsoft really need a new company to accomplish it? When I wrote about this last year, I proposed four possible explanations for the new company:

Consolidating the standards and open source teams. This still seems to be the explanation of choice for Microsoft's PR machine, but I still can't see why Microsoft had to create a new subsidiary to do it, especially considering most of the work with open source and open standards within products is still distributed over the company

Create a career path for the standards team. Nice thought, but I still don't think so.

Firewall open source licensing. Licenses like the GPLv3 are an inescapable fact of open source, and they do a fine job protecting their communities. However, they do that by placing responsibilities on corporate participants, especially on how they handle patents. Most modern licenses include "patent peace" clauses, removing rights from community participants who turn out to be patent litigators. Those clauses also give broad patent licenses to a contributor's patent portfolio. Additionally, most open source licensing experts believe all open source licenses give implied licenses to patents infringed from a contributor's portfolio. A separate subsidiary provides an "arm's length" relationship so that license terms can't affect the parent company and unintentional free patent licenses don't get given away. Given that MOT's projects include engagement with Android, where Microsoft has been unexpectedly successful persuading competitors to pay licensing fees for no visible benefit, this still seems the most likely role of MOT.

Firewall patent liability. After years of skepticism, Microsoft became an ardent admirer of software patents and especially their earning potential when embedded in both de facto and de jure standards. Microsoft is actively lobbying for "RAND" (arbitrary fee-based licensing) patent terms to be allowed in standards. But there's a corresponding risk of taint. By having the standards work done in a separate company, Microsoft limits the liability it faces from those seeking fees and alleging plagiarism. Again, the profile of work done includes engagement at W3C and other standards fora and suggests this is also part of the rationale.

Rabellino wasn't forthcoming with information about any of these matters, nor with details of the subsidiary's business model or funding. All the same, most companies have a standards team or an open source office for the functions Microsoft Open Technologies delivers for its owner, not a wholly owned subsidiary. I'm guessing the true value of the subsidiary to Microsoft is a piñata that won't be available for opening at the party tonight.

This story, "Microsoft's open source subsidiary celebrates its first year," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.