Microsoft needs a crutch.

I remember that a while ago, as I was attending a heated debate on the (in)famous standardization of OOXML. As we were arguing with Microsoft on some specification details, I happened to state all aloud that when it came to this level of security (the topic at hand was security), I had my concerns about the encryption algorithms used by the specification but that in a general sense, security relied much more on the application using the format and the underlying operating system’s level of security. I went on to say that for the specific portion of the draft we were studying, it was perhaps not necessary to waste time in fruitless discussion topics including the behavior of OOXML documents in a computer undergoing a nuclear attack and being stored on a computer facing a zero-day exploit at the same time.

The response from one of the Microsoft spokesperson (I’m coining the term spokesperson, because that’s what most of them were) was a mix of surprise and sarcasm: “Everything happens, today you agreed with us!”. And indeed, I agreed that we should continue to parse the 6000 pages-long draft.

Looking back at this small anecdote today I cannot help thinking about the announcement of the 14th of September: Microsoft launched a foundation to host open source software. Regardless of what we may think of this move, I think we just have to step back and consider what an odd situation we have come to experience. What would this foundation entail? Poison? Divide and conquer? Or just a grumpy admission by Redmond that this industry has evolved after all, and that there is no way trying to go against the tide?

I will not provide an in-depth analysis of the few elements that are known to the public about the Codeplex foundation. Andy Updegrove has already written a wonderfully detailed post on his blog.

It is important at first to explain that we stand at a very specific point in time, where most of what we know about the Codeplex foundation, its governance, its structure and perhaps even its goals, is but of a temporary nature. This new entity has an interim board, we know who is the main and only sponsor, we know from what and where the foundation stems (Microsoft and its codeplex code repository) but besides that the rest is subject to change. Therefore it will be a bit difficult for me to draw a conclusion on the secret and not so secret goals of this foundation, and even more difficult to guess whether Microsoft has truly amended its ways. On the latter question, I don’t think it has. But that’s almost off topic for now. Going back to our former issue, it would be very easy for me to point out that almost everyone on the board of the foundation is either a Microsoft employee or someone with strong economic (and probably sometimes ideological) ties to Microsoft. This is not something that will make the Codeplex foundation look trustworthy to many. Miguel de Icaza might develop free software, his actions and the general sense of his projects have definitely tagged him, at the very least, as someone with a very exclusive sense of what free and open source software mean.

All this is so far very easy to write. But I don’t think we should understand the Codeplex foundation to be a simple reunion of Microsoft “and its minions in the open source community”. Frankly speaking, it does ring a bit cheesy and once again, too little detail is known about this project. I understand, on the other hand, that the website called codeplex has been around for quite some time and is still acting as a code repository for open source and not open source software tied to the Microsoft ecosystem and technologies. The very existence of this repository has never ruffled many feathers inside the free and open source software community, regardless of the success Microsoft claims its website to have.

Establishing a foundation on top of this online repository may then raise questions. There is a general, albeit perhaps paranoid, sense that what is being attempted here is nothing short than some sort of grand divide of the free and open source software community between the “pro-Microsoft” and the “pro-whatever-you-name-it”. I have given some thought to this, and regardless of whether some actually do have this goal in mind or not, I think this plan is doomed to fail.

First, one has to realize that what happened with Novell was a serious attack against free and open source software, but although it was serious, it never really had any major impact on the community itself. What I mean by this is not that it did not have any real and damageable impact on IT companies or OEMs that ended up signing phony IPR deals with Microsoft. I mean by this that when you step back, you end up realizing that even the divide it caused inside the community is not that big. There is no one “Novell Community” and one “FSF Community”. That simply never existed except perhaps in the mind of some Mono architects. Even the Ximian bunch is very much on its own; influential because of monthly salaries, and time to devout to their pet projects and an historical ties to Gnome. But aside this, the impact of the Novell agreement with Microsoft did not create the “grand schism” many feared or wished at that time.

Of course I’m not considering technical or commercial realities here, I’m only talking about free and open source software in general. Back to the theories around the Codeplex foundation: I don’t think you can divide an already intangible, present and yet evanescent community with a foundation and a repository. So few people understand that in order to entice other people to contribute to your project you have to walk the line, be truly open and give them a sense of appropriation of the project they’re working on. In other words, if what the Codeplex foundation is about promoting phony software projects, it will fail in the long run to harm the free and open source software movement. If this foundation’s trade is about playing games and not developing software that comes with freedom to the users and developers in a sense that has best been described by the FSF, I don’t think anyone, except corporate minions, will be interested in it.

But if the Codeplex foundation is really about developing software, and free or open source software at that, then… what should this be bad news? I do sound willingly positive here: I should perhaps mention truly free and open source software; no patent bomb, trap, games being played in the dark (although that does exist elsewhere, obviously); what is wanted here is an honest deal, not an apple and a snake dancing around it.

Given the founder of the foundation, I am quite sure it will have so much scrutiny that it will be condemned to be have, or disappear.

Several elements, however, make me think Microsoft is trying to achieve something different, and I feel a bit puzzled by this. Reading into the announcement: “ […] the CodePlex Foundation was created as a forum in which open source communities and the software development community can come together with the shared goal of increasing participation in open source community projects. The CodePlex Foundation will complement existing open source foundations and organizations, providing a forum in which best practices and shared understanding can be established by a broad group of participants, both software companies and open source communities. […]”.

So the Codeplex foundation does not seem to be a mere placeholder for code; it seems to be some kind of meeting place to share best practices andinformation. I note the strange comparison of terms: “a forum in which the open source communities and the software development community can come together”. One more little effort, Microsoft, you will end up writing “proprietary” software development. But I digress. This foundation strikes me then as being something different from what we know. All of a sudden, it’s not Sourceforge vs. Codeplex, not one model vs. another one. It calls for a joining together and a better communication, a sharing, yes, sharing not being an usual word for Microsoft, of best practices. What to do with that?

Let’s read further and check the first answer of the FAQ: “ […] We believe that commercial software companies and the developers that work for them under-participate in open source projects. Some of the reasons are cultural, some have to do with differing software development methodologies, and some have to do with differing views about copyrights and patents. In general, we are going to work to close these gaps. Specifically we aim to work with particular projects that can serve as best practice exemplars of how commercial software companies and open source communities can effectively collaborate. […]

That is, I believe, the essence of the Codeplex foundation that is described here. Forget the code for a moment, and you might come to the conclusion that either Microsoft wants to impose its views on patents and copyrights, or it genuinely wants to have a fruitful conversation with the free and open source software community. The former is only surprising as it shows a different approach, but if that’s what they’re looking to achieve I am afraid that unless this foundation comes out with the most radically innovative ideas in the field of IPR, it will fail, for the first reason I outlined much above: Nobody will follow them, except people and constituencies who have an economic incentive to do that. What is left, then, if not the latter hypothesis? Interesting times are ahead of us in this case.

I am afraid, however, that the people interested in “ closing the gaps” are not going to be many. Who might be interested? Microsoft should better do its homework alone; I don’t see who might help it. By “closing the gaps”, Microsoft may be displaying a change of attitude that many have asked for, but what the company is essentially offering to the world is to serve as a crutch while it’s trying to fix itself. But who needs a crutch when one can walk perfectly?

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