Microsoft Is Set to Be Top Foe of Free Code

Microsoft is preparing a broad campaign countering the movement to give away and share software code, arguing that it potentially undermines the intellectual property of countries and companies. At the same time, the company is acknowledging that it is feeling pressure from the freely shared alternatives to its commercial software.

SAN FRANCISCO, May 2 — Microsoft is preparing a broad campaign countering the movement to give away and share software code, arguing that it potentially undermines the intellectual property of countries and companies. At the same time, the company is acknowledging that it is feeling pressure from the freely shared alternatives to its commercial software.

In a speech defending Microsoft’s business model, to be given on Thursday at the Stern School of Business at New York University, Craig Mundie, a senior vice president at Microsoft and one of its software strategists, will argue that the company already follows the best attributes of the open-source model by sharing the original programmer’s instructions, or source code, more widely than is generally realized.

The speech is part of an effort by Microsoft to raise questions about the limits of innovation inherent in the open-source approach and to suggest that companies adopting the approach are putting their intellectual property at risk.

Advocates of the open-source movement say that making the code available permits other developers to tinker with it, find problems and improve the software. Although the movement has not yet had a significant effect on sales of Microsoft’s Office and Windows products in the personal computer market, the company wants to enter the corporate software market, where open source has gained ground.

In his speech, Mr. Mundie will argue that one aspect of the open-source model, known as the General Public License, or G.P.L., is a potential trap that undercuts the commercial software business and mirrors some of the worst practices of dot- com businesses, in which goods were given away in an effort to attract visitors to Web sites. G.P.L. requires that any software using source code already covered by the licensing agreement must become available for free distribution.

“This viral aspect of the G.P.L. poses a threat to the intellectual property of any organization making use of it,” Mr. Mundie said in a telephone interview this week.

I.B.M. in particular has been heavily marketing the free Linux operating system.

Mr. Mundie does not identify I.B.M. by name in his speech, which was provided beforehand, but he says that large companies are naïve in adopting the open-source model.

“I would challenge you,” he said, “to find a company who is a large established enterprise, who at the end of the day would throw all of its intellectual property into the open- source category.”

An I.B.M. executive said that his company had considered the issues surrounding the protection of intellectual property and had decided that it was possible to follow both a proprietary and a shared business model, even one based on the G.P.L.

The executive, Irving Wladawsky- Berger, an I.B.M. vice president, said, “If we thought this was a trap, we wouldn’t be doing it, and as you know, we have a lot of lawyers.”

In February, Jim Allchin, a software designer at Microsoft, became a lightning rod for industry criticism when he said in an interview with Bloomberg News that freely distributed software code could stifle innovation and that legislators should be aware of the threat.

Mr. Mundie said he would elaborate on Mr. Allchin’s comments while also trying to demonstrate that Microsoft already practices many of what he called the best aspects of the open-source model.

“We have been going around the industry talking to people,” Mr. Mundie said, “and have been startled to find that people aren’t very sophisticated about the implications of what open source means.” He acknowledged that the open-source movement was making inroads.

“The news here is that Microsoft is engaging in a serious way in this discussion,” he said. “The open- source movement has continued to gather momentum in a P.R. sense and a product sense.”

He said Microsoft was particularly concerned about the inroads that the open-source idea was making in other countries.

“It’s happening very, very broadly in a way that is troubling to us,” he said. “I could highlight a dozen countries around the world who have open-source initiatives.”

Mr. Mundie said that in his speech, he would break the open-source strategy into five categories: community, standards, business model, investment and licensing model. Microsoft, he said, in support of the community ideal, already has what he called a shared-source philosophy, which makes its source code available to hardware makers, software developers, scientists, researchers and government agencies.

Microsoft would expand its sharing initiatives, he said. But he added that the company’s proprietary business model was a more effective way to support industry standards than the open-source approach, which he said could lead to a “forking” of the software base resulting in the development of multiple incompatible versions of standard programs.

He cited the history of Unix, which has been replete with incompatible versions. Although he acknowledged that the open-source approach had created new technologies, he said that business models using the open- source community were suspect.

“It is innovation that really drives growth,” Mr. Mundie said, arguing that without the sustained investment made possible by commercial software, real innovation would not be possible.

He reserved his harshest criticism in the text of his speech for the G.P.L., a software licensing model defined by programmer Richard M. Stallman in 1984.

“This is not understood by many sophisticated people,” Mr. Mundie said. “The goal of the G.P.L. is sweeping up all of the intellectual property that has been contributed. That creates many problems downstream, many of which haven’t come home to roost yet.”

Mr. Stallman has made a distinction between the open-source software movement and the G.P.L., which he designed as part of the free software movement that he led.

In a response to Microsoft’s Mr. Allchin in February, Mr. Stallman wrote:”The free software movement was founded in 1984, but its inspiration comes from the ideals of 1776: freedom, community and voluntary cooperation. This is what leads to free enterprise, to free speech, and to free software.”

Today a proponent of the open- source software movement said he thought that Microsoft was taking a clever approach in its challenge.

“It’s very clever of them,” said Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative. “Instead of attacking the entire open-source movement they’ve singled out the one license that is in a sense politically controversial.”


News Service: The New York Times


Leave a Reply