Apache and Microsoft: Incremental or Revolutionary Progress?

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Microsoft is becoming a sponsor of the Apache Software Foundation (ASF). This sponsorship will enable the ASF to pay administrators and other support staff so that ASF developers can focus on writing great software.” – Sam Ramji, Microsoft

When Microsoft kindly made me aware of this news in advance during a sit down meeting at OSCON earlier this week, they seemed more than a bit disappointed with my reaction to the news. To the extent that they used words like “sloppy” to describe it and phrases like “hipster perpetual boredom” my attitude.

Not, presumably, because I believed it to be a bad move, because I did not and do not. More likely it was due to the fact that I was less enthusiastic than they might have hoped. Which is understandable, given the context.

To explore that context and more, let’s turn to our old friend, the Q&A.

Q: To begin with, anything to disclose?
A: Yes, Microsoft is a RedMonk customer and the Port25 team, specifically, has been a past customer.

Q: Now, what do you mean, precisely, that the reactions to this are understandable in context?
A: One’s impression of the significance of this news, in my opinion, is almost entirely dependent on one’s proximity to the affected organizations. Apache members, predictably, will be pleased, not simply because of the 100K+ cash infusion, but also the explicit endorsement of the Apache philosophy towards open source management and governance. Likewise, those that work for Microsoft (I assume) and those that work with Microsoft (I know) will recognize this announcement for what it is: the product of massive effort, and pitched battles at every step of the way.

Q: But you work with Microsoft, and are – by your own admission – less than totally impressed. What gives?
A: I’m impressed with the effort that I know went into this, certainly, and as I told Microsoft, I think it’s unquestionably a step in the right direction. I simply don’t view it as massive news.

The announcement is, in my view, news. What it is not, I think, is an Eclipse-open-sourced moment – with all due respect to my colleague. Let alone a Sun-buys-MySQL-for-$1BN event.

It’s a nice and significant gesture, and a step in the right direction, but it’s incremental to me. Not revolutionary.

Q: Why is that?
A: Many reasons, but not least because this is a donation of dollars that, while significant to Apache, are not even a rounding error to Microsoft. For those that contend that this is an explicit endorsement of open source generally, I strongly disagree. It’s principally around money rather than code, remember. And those that would argue that this is a specific validation of the Apache model, well, that’s true, but this is but the most overt step. Microsoft, after all, has engaged on a less formal basis with Apache previously. And Mozilla. And Eclipse.

Consider it this way: Microsoft has been a long time sponsor of open source shows and conferences, the most prominent examples being OSBC and OSCON. Has that participation fundamentally altered the way Microsoft develops software, or – more importantly – speaks about open source software, at least at the senior executive levels? Not particularly. Participation in the Apache community is likely to be a more profound influence than conference participation, but probably not one that’s much more efficient or swift.

While certain constituencies within Microsoft – Sam’s team being the obvious exhibit A – understand open source fairly well, I remain unconvinced that upper management’s grasp is as firm. And no sponsorship deal – Apache or otherwise – is likely to persuade me otherwise.

Q: It sounds as if you’ve written Microsoft off, then.
A: Hardly. We’ve worked with Microsoft for a long time, and the progress from our initial conversations years ago through the OSCON announcements has been both significant and substantial. And as someone who’s worked with Microsoft enough to understand the internal battles that have been fought, I’m appreciative of those fighting the good fight. One that, as the OSCON Q&A shows, can be a thankless task indeed.

I’m simply not of the belief that Microsoft is poised to digest open source internally as have other larger firms.

And frankly, why should they? As has been discussed in this space many times, Microsoft has only created the single most profitable software business in the history of software, all without the benefit of and in many cases in spite of open source competition. Competition which challenges some of the existing and potential revenue streams.

From a historical perspective, then, the reactions by Microsoft to open source have been mostly logical, if conservative and not terribly creative.

Q: What, then, would you consider quote unquote big news from Microsoft in the realm of open source?
A: With some time to think, my answer would be something that indicated that the acceptance of open source within the firm was more than an acknowledgment of the need to coexist and interoperate with open source. A move that signaled an awareness that open source, while hardly the only approach to developing software, does possess certain advantages over its proprietary competition.

Those who’ve followed our coverage in the past should be aware that RedMonk in general and myself specifically are not open source zealots, convinced that it is the the one true course for software. Indeed, just this week at OSCON I sat on a panel and defended the right of companies such as Microsoft to eschew open source – a stance that would be less controversial were it not for the composition of the audience which was at best potentially hostile.

But while open source is not, in my view, the one true path for software development, it’s difficult to argue the point that it possesses certain intrinsic advantages in distribution and so on. True, these advantages are something less of a premium to a firm like Microsoft that enjoys the market position it does, but not every Microsoft offering has the marketshare that Windows and Office enjoy. Or IE. Or Sharepoint. Or Active Directory. Or…you get the point.

And yet Microsoft’s open source activities thus far have only recently included participation and then generally in the areas of interoperability. Drivers, installers, patches and so on. Good, but not earth changing.

For me to be convinced that Microsoft has had an Eclipse scale epiphany, I would need to see one of their important assets open sourced. Not Windows or Office – there’s virtually no business case to be made for either – but other, less established assets.

This would be done, of course, not for the sake of being open source, but rather as a strategic decision. As an effort to advantage their product in the market place. As IBM did with Eclipse. As Microsoft could do with, say, IIS.

Until then, I’ll view the ongoing courtship of open source projects and communities as a positive, yes, but an attempt that still holds open source at arm’s length.

Q: From the above, it seems clear that you’re not of the belief that this is a not a move that jeopardizes platforms such as IIS?
A:No indeed. Microsoft’s commitments to its own platforms will doubtless remain strong, not least because it’s essential to its long term “integrated innovation” strategy. While there are those that might argue that Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to ensure interoperability raise questions about the future of ASP.Net, IIS, and so on, I do not happen to be one of those people.

I see them as nothing more than a pragmatic attempt to sell more platform – OS and Office alike – licenses. Just as Microsoft itself will tell you.

Q: Why Apache?
A: Like other large commercial organizations such as IBM that participate in the Apache Software Foundation, Microsoft likely finds in Apache a more palatable alternative to, say, the Free Software Foundation. As demonstrated by its permissive software license, the ASF’s idea of software freedom focuses on developer rights over the users favored by the FSF. Where the GPL guarantees user access to code and derivative works in perpetuity, the Apache license grants developers and developing organizations a great deal of latitude in their usage and deployment options.

Apache licensed code, in fact, can be incorporated back into closed source, commerical products as has been much lamented recently in discussions of the Android software stack from Google. This commercial-friendly aspect of Apache’s approach makes them a natural fit for a Microsoft relationship, much as it does the same with IBM.

Q: Do you agree, then, with the many Microsoft critics that reportedly dominated the Q&A session with Sam following his OSCON keynote?
A: Do I yet have concerns regarding Microsoft’s stance vis a vis intellectual property, patents and the like? I do. The historical enmity from Microsoft senior executives towards open source has earned external observers the right to be skeptical, I think.

But I do not approve of the usually unproductive and often gratuitous Microsoft bashing that occurs in many Microsoft quarters. First, and most importantly, because it can make the sort of collaboration that have made Firefox, PHP and so on more competitive Windows applications impossible. Which means that users become collateral damage in a philosophical war that is not their own. More problematically, it undermines the efforts of the contingent within Microsoft that is trying to move the firm forward.

Instead, I argue with those that have lent Sam and his team their votes of support. Whether you think they’re moving fast enough or not, they’re doing good work and fighting the good fight within Microsoft. That they haven’t persuaded the senior executives of the importance of open source is not the fault of their lack of effort, but rather the unprecedented financial success the firm enjoyed in spite of open source.

Therefore, if you want to help Microsoft be a better open source participant, and thus help users and the open source partners of Microsoft, the public floggings are needlessly counterproductive and serve little purpose but venting.

Ultimately, I’m with Sam Ruby: I’m eager to see Microsoft make the transit. Even if it’s got a long way to go, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and so on.