This post is not an oxymoron. The Open Source Initiative recently approved two Microsoft licenses (the Microsoft Reciprocal License and the Microsoft Public License) as compliant with the open source definition.
Why would Microsoft want to publish an open source license? The very idea of Microsoft participating in the open source community might sound odd. After all, hasn’t Microsoft been one of the most vocal proprietary vendors against free and open source software? Isn’t Microsoft known for its attempts to undermine open source standards? Often yes, but the company has also been dabbling, to various degrees, with open source for a while (its FlexWiki application is one example).
Based on just public news and bloggers’ opinions, I see two prevalent theories about how Microsoft’s increasing forays in open source could play out down the road. Theory 1, Microsoft must embrace an inevitable business change brought about by the FOSS community. A change in which an entirely proprietary software business cannot compete against its FOSS counterparts. Theory 2, is that Microsoft could subvert its FOSS competition from within. This second theory is supported by actions the company has taken with, for example Novell, in which it signed certain agreements involving its patents and conditions for not suing. Much of its agreements seem to promote the notion, using lawsuit threats, that as long as you’re working within their framework, you’re ok, just don’t stray outside of it.
But how can the company get people working inside of its framework? The best way I can think of is to launch its own open source initiatives with the support of the existing open source ecosystem. Then Microsoft becomes, not only an accepted participant, but it gains some recognition momentum as an initiator.
Enter the two new Microsoft licenses (Ms-PL and Ms-RL). Both of its new licenses feature a section that deals with patents–with a goal, it seems to me, to dampen the likelihood of patent lawsuits. Consider again the amount of sabre rattling that Microsoft does with its own patent portfolio. Will this help push people into using its new licenses? Certainly there are existing FOSS licenses that also address software patent issues (GPL v3). Maybe you’d feel safer using Microsoft’s own.
I can’t help but think that if the second theory proves true, in order to actually participate as a valid option within the FOSS community (even if the intention was more involved, like subverting it), Microsoft will have to embrace and practice the business changes such participation entails. Thus, theory 1 comes true–Microsoft ends up moving toward greater open source practices within its own business.