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Editorial: A Ringside Seat

Aug01: Editorial

While it's not as historic as, say, Brown versus The Board of Education, or as exciting as Ali versus Foreman's "Rumble in the Jungle," the Stallman versus Microsoft tussle has its David-and-Goliath moments. In one corner, there's the Redmond tag team of Jim Allchin, Craig Mundie, Steve Ballmer, and a squad of ringside support personnel. In the other corner, there's Richard Stallman.

In truth, Microsoft isn't ganging up on Stallman per se, instead dissing the GNU General Public License (GPL). But, as any fool knows, going chin-to-chin with the GPL means taking on Stallman. Yo mamma! That said, they're sort of badmouthing the GPL. Microsoft's real opponent seems to be open source in general, and Linux in particular. The confusion is in how Team Microsoft continually muddles the concepts of "open source" and "GPL," referring to them as being one and the same. They're not — and Microsoft darn well knows it.

Round One, you recall, started with Allchin stupidly describing open source as "unAmerican." This idiocy was followed in Round Two by Mundie's presentation ( at New York University's Stern School of Business, in which he first lumped together GPL and open source, then introduced Microsoft's notion of "shared source" — a model that governs the terms under which Microsoft licenses source code to its "customers and partners" ( In fact, there's nothing new about Microsoft's shared source at all. The company admits it has been sharing source code with some customers and academic institutions for years.

Pursuant to Mundie's talk, NYU's Center for Advanced Technology invited GPL author Richard Stallman for a contrary view. Setting the stage for Round Three, a Microsoft public-relation minion delegated to the Stallman problem encouraged journalists "to take a moment prior to [Stallman's] speech to read through these questions and to look at the GNU GPL FAQ" ( These questions were graciously provided by Microsoft, of course.

For nearly two hours, Stallman hammered home that free software and the GPL aren't the same as open source ( Much of Stallman's discussion focused on the freedoms that free — not open source — software offer: The freedom to run programs for any purpose, any way you like; the freedom to change programs to suit your needs; the freedom to distribute copies of programs; and the freedom to publish improved versions so others can get the benefit of your work. In short, Stallman really didn't offer much new (as someone pointed out on "Headlines for today: RMS: Free Software Good, Dog Bites Man, Sky Blue"). His specific response to Mundie was best summed up in the letter "Free Software Leaders Stand Together" (, jointly signed with Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond, Linus Torvalds, Miguel de Icaza, Larry Wall, Guido van Rossum, Tim O'Reilly, Bob Young, and Larry Augustin.

Opening Round Four, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer jumped into the ring with an interview in the Chicago Sun-Times ( Without mentioning GPL, Ballmer did his best to again muddy the waters: "Open source is not available to commercial companies. The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source." Frankly, I have no idea what Ballmer is talking about — open source is available to commercial companies. However, I do understand when he states that "Linux is a cancer." Of course, why he'd say such a thing is another question.

Although I've never met Allchin or Mundie, I have met Ballmer and am here to tell you he is a very, very smart guy. Consequently, there's no question that Ballmer, Allchin, and Mundie clearly understand the difference between open source and GPL. So why persist in intentionally obfuscating the truth? One explanation is that it's just business — Microsoft is scared silly of Linux, open source, and free software, and will go to any lengths to poison the marketplace well. However, my favorite theory is that this is all a red herring. By bobbing and weaving about open source, attention is diverted from other controversial issues — such as licensing.

Microsoft wants to make major changes in how it sells software, and they're going to be very hard sells indeed. What the company wants to do is treat software as a service, à la the failed IBM MVS model of years ago. In the service model, customers lease software from Microsoft, rather than buy it. What makes this viable today, however, is distributed computing and the emergence of web services (such as Microsoft's .NET), whereby application software resides on vendor servers rather than local disks. Continuous Internet connections let vendors have non-stop access to customer systems for monitoring — and enforcing — license compliance. Miss a monthly lease payment, and your access to applications is restricted. While feinting over open source, Microsoft is able to slide another agenda in under the radar.

Round Five should be a doozy when Mundie climbs on stage at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention ( to further derogate open source and promote shared source. Here's hoping for a ringside seat.

Jonathan Erickson

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