Microsoft: Free-software licenses are the devil's work!

Bill Gates and Co. say open-source software harms technological innovation -- but the attack from Redmond could easily backfire.

By Andrew Leonard

Published May 3, 2001 9:05PM (EDT)

Richard Stallman must be smiling. What better affirmation of his life's work could he ask for than a full frontal assault from Microsoft? On Thursday, in a speech at New York University's Stern School of Business, Microsoft executive Craig Mundie singled out Stallman's creation, the GPL (general public license), as a threat to intellectual property, technological innovation and global economic growth. The GPL, said Mundie, "fundamentally undermines the independent commercial software sector."

In other words, the GPL -- a software license mandating that a program's underlying source code be made publicly accessible -- cuts into Microsoft's profit margins.

Would Stallman want it any other way? Of course not. Stallman's goal has long been to provide software developers and users with an alternative to proprietarily developed software. His motivation is primarily moral -- he believes it is ethically wrong not to share. If nothing else, Microsoft's decision to make free software and the GPL a target for sustained criticism is clear proof that he -- along with the thousands of other developers who have, for their own reasons, contributed to the free-software movement -- has succeeded in making that alternative a reality.

But at what cost? The Microsoft party line is that the spread of free software will hamper the ability of commercial software companies to pay for their development costs. This in turn will decrease the amount of innovation in the software industry, and thus undermine overall economic growth.

Of particular worry to Microsoft, Mundie indicated in an interview with New York Times reporter John Markoff on Thursday, is the threat to Microsoft's overseas growth. According to Mundie, a dozen or so nations have open-source initiatives. The idea that foreign governments might see a strategic advantage in not having their technological infrastructure dependent on a U.S. corporation is, apparently, quite daunting to Bill Gates and Co.

Let's stipulate, for the time being, that Microsoft is correct -- that the spread of free software will cut profits in the commercial software industry. This is not the most shocking accusation ever made; some prominent free-software programmers believe it to be a natural, and even desirable, consequence of the software industry's becoming more efficient. And let's even go so far as to agree with Mundie about the GPL. The GPL's requirement that developers who would like to use code protected by the GPL in their own applications must then make the entirety of those applications also protected by the GPL is a pretty sneaky trick, with incalculable long-term consequences.

One can even find potential support for Microsoft's case in the current disarray in the commercial open-source marketplace. Bankruptcies, layoffs and class action suits are rampant. Highflying start-ups like Eazel and Linuxcare are struggling to survive. Even relative giants like VA Linux are tightening belts and constantly revising earnings estimates downward. Reading newsgroups, mailing lists and bulletin boards, one senses a certain dissatisfaction, if not malaise: The glory days of free-software hype are over, and economic realities are coming home to roost.

But wait a minute. Since when did economic reality have anything to do with free software? It's always worth remembering that individual free-software developers originally decided to give away their code for reasons that were not commercial in nature. Such reasons included reputation within the community of programmers, altruism, just doing it for the heck of it and, to be sure, distrust of and distaste for Microsoft.

Now imagine how those developers will feel when they read in the New York Times Mundie's characterization of some proponents of free software as "unsophisticated." Or in other words, not very smart.

Microsoft, of course, knows best. But it's hard to imagine how Microsoft could more effectively have spurred on the dedication of free-software developers to continue to devote themselves to their cause. By attacking the GPL -- and by suggesting, as Jim Allchin, another Microsoft V.P., did two months ago, that free-software developers are somehow "un-American," Microsoft is actually fueling the emotional wellsprings of free-software development passion, as well as raising the public profile of free software at a time when hype is at a historic low.

A more sensible strategy would have been for Microsoft to shut up and concentrate on making attractive products. Instead, the company seems intent on whipping up its opponents into a berserker-like frenzy.

Mundie's speech is the equivalent of a 3-year-old boy plunging a stick into a hill of voracious fire ants: One moment, they're going about their business, and the next, they're boiling with fury, searching frantically for something to vent their anger on. In the spring of 1999, when Microsoft sponsored an unfavorable comparison between Linux and Windows NT that just happened to be conducted in a Microsoft laboratory on computers optimized for NT, the company inadvertently spurred top Linux developers into redoubling their activities. We can expect the same kind of reaction to Mundie's assault.

But there appears to be a more fundamental misunderstanding at work in the relationship between Microsoft and free software than a simple strategic miscalculation. Microsoft looks at the software industry, understandably, from the perspective of wanting to generate profits. But companies that use free software look at it from the perspective of wanting to cut costs -- they see a chance to dodge the Microsoft tax.

The motivation to cut costs, or at least to avoid unnecessary expense, makes particular sense overseas. Why should companies in India or China or Indonesia choose to subsidize an American corporation by buying expensive licenses to software over which they have no ultimate control? The context takes on special force when one considers that Microsoft is already spending millions of dollars in punitive attempts to force such countries to stop unauthorized use of Microsoft software. It's not hard to see each dollar spent by Microsoft in the war against piracy as a dollar of advertising for free software.

One could be tempted to chalk up the latest speech by Mundie as another example of unintentional free-software marketing. But the speech is also a clear indication of where Microsoft sees the fight for the future of the software industry taking place. And contrary to Mundie's spin, this is not about Microsoft's position being threatened by free software. It is, instead, all about Microsoft's desire to move into territory that has historically been dominated by free software -- in other words, the Net.

It is difficult, these days, to avoid Microsoft's marketing push for .NET, its plan to integrate a potpourri of Web services and Web-based applications in one Net-based platform. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that a core portion of Mundie's speech focuses on Microsoft's .NET strategy.

According to Mundie, the Internet is entering "Phase 3" of its development. Phase 1 was the explosion of the World Wide Web. Phase 2 saw the "birth of the online transaction and the promise of Internet-based business models." And Phase 3, which is where .NET comes in, is "all about connecting the currently separate complex systems of information and transactions and bringing that power to the individual in a readily accessible format on a variety of devices."


It is important to note that Phase 3 will not come about due to any one company's, or even a single group of companies', efforts. Innovation investment and a significant community of software developers will need to share the excitement of bringing about the next generation of the Web. The resulting intellectual property will be the foundation of the business model providing the continuing opportunity for R&D.

.NET is about creating an infrastructure on top of the Internet that is wholly owned by Microsoft. It's about moving into a new territory and establishing the kind of controlling beachhead that Microsoft already enjoys in the world of productivity apps because of its dominance of desktop operating systems. Once Microsoft begins to extend that beachhead, it will be able to make a lot of money by charging for the use of it.

But one of the great successes of free software is that it has aided in the creation of an infrastructure that everyone is free to use, provided he pays his ISP access charges. The GPL is a big problem for .NET, because an Internet infrastructure constructed out of GPL-protected software is one that can be freely extended and made more valuable without having to pay any particular company for the privilege.

Microsoft doesn't want to live in that world. As Mundie states:

The GPL mandates that any software that incorporates source code already licensed under the GPL will itself become subject to the GPL ... This viral aspect of the GPL poses a threat to the intellectual property of any organization making use of it. It also fundamentally undermines the independent commercial sector because it effectively makes it impossible to distribute software on a basis where recipients pay for the product rather than just the cost of distribution.

The GPL threatens the spread of .NET. Therefore the GPL must be stopped.

But if Microsoft wins this battle, does anyone else? After all, a company that saves thousands of dollars relying on Linux and Apache for its computing infrastructure is a company that can then spend more of its cash on whatever it actually produces. Such a company doesn't care all that much about theories of "innovation" -- it just wants to get its work done.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's plaintive wail over the future of innovation is just a smoke screen. What Microsoft really wants are new markets to dominate, whether they be overseas or on the Net. And apparently the company sees the GPL as standing in the way. But each attempt to demonize the GPL as the enemy of Microsoft-style capitalism risks making the free-software movement stronger instead.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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