Sides of Subverting Open Source

Martin Schneider at The 451 Group commented on whether the collective “we” can be too jaded regarding some proprietary vendors’ apparent embrace of open source methods. This was in response to a piece by Dave Rosenberg and Matt Asay about subverting open source for sake of certain marketing purposes. Rosenberg and Asay essentially say that Microsoft and SAP have a well-known history of speaking out against Free and open source software (FOSS) and concepts.

Certainly, Microsoft and SAP have put effort and money into spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD), and both have publicly made, sometimes very strange statements about or against FOSS. Yet recently, both are putting some effort into releasing bits in an open source method or else funding some open source development. Rosenberg and Asay seem to think there is an ulterior motive,

“Any outreach attempts from vendors who have worked for years to destroy open source should be taken with a grain of salt and a sharp eye cast on motivating factors.”

Or could this mean, as Schneider suggests, that these companies are beginning to join the community’s stance that open source “…is simply a better way to create and distribute software.”? Rosenberg and Asay seem to take that into account by acknowledging the project leaders for the open source initiatives within these companies probably are working in earnest–I can’t help but lean toward a bigger picture that, as a whole, there is something else, more involved, taking place.

It makes perfect sense, if you’re a proprietary vendor, to delve deeply into your FOSS competitors, and for several reasons. I believe there are serious reasons to be wary of such proprietary vendors’ forays into FOSS and at the same time to embrace that. Here is why.

First, any vendor has to know what it’s competing against. This is just standard good business practice, there are even industries devoted to supporting this idea–competitive intelligence. What better way to understand the new models undoing your traditional strategy than to emulate them and find out how they work. The more you understand, the better can you build your products to compete and win. If the FOSS community innovates new technology, Microsoft wins by learning it and improving upon it for their own products, just like any good open source vendor would want to do (of course an open source vendor would participate by feeding the community with those improvements as well).

Second, what about that often referred to Machiavellian notion of keeping your friends close and enemies closer? If Microsoft can successfully attract an open source development community into its fold (so-to-speak) it gains a very powerful tool, a foothold into the “enemy’s” camp, which allows it to anticipate and prepare its proprietary strategies.

Third, does it hurt the proprietary vendor in any way? They’ve got all their proprietary business and propaganda in full swing, everyone already knows about that. On the other hand FOSS and Linux are gaining recognition. I’ll make an educated guess that FOSS and Linux are still not as well understood, in concept, by the majority of business decision-makers, much less the public in general. I think they still lack the massive public feeling of acceptance that most software vendors currently enjoy with their traditional proprietary business models. However, as that understanding and recognition grows in positive ways, it can only help companies like Microsoft and SAP to be able to show they’re just as much involved in the leading edge of technology practices. It’s simply good PR. If Microsoft and SAP can manage this while maintaining their proprietary side, so much the better for them (from their perspective).

Fourth, let’s suppose there truly is an ulterior motive to subvert FOSS communities. In the shoes of a company like Microsoft, it makes sense to blur the lines of differentiation between your proprietary approach and real FOSS approaches (hence the shared-source initiative). The harder it is for critics, detractors, or enemies to clearly differentiate your approach from their own, the harder it will be for them spotlight your weaknesses and their strengths, thus the customer cannot act on clear information for his or her software selection decisions. Furthermore, if you actually do participate in some ways with the FOSS community, you may gain some supporters that will defend, in good conscience, your motives, and possibly even turn a blind eye toward some of your other, less savoury practices (this not only blurs more boundaries but it again helps with grassroots PR, which is oh-so important on the Internet).

Finally, I’d like to say that already there is no clear side-versus-side here, we have to pay attention to the grey to really comprehend the situation. While I think we can see companies like Microsoft and SAP employing some intruiging strategies for subversion, and there are battles between models and methodologies, to a degree there is also some learning and the adoption of new and better practices. Because of the co-opetitive nature of FOSS models, the gradual adoption by the likes of proprietary vendors may even, unexpectedly, end up subverting those vendors’ models. We’re not too jaded to be constantly wary and suspect these companies of efforts to undermine FOSS, but we should, at the same time, cheer them on when they actually do participate in real FOSS processes.

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