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Is Microsoft really any more trustworthy?

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Lately, Microsoft has been trying really, really hard to appear as open source’s best friend. All I can say is: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Microsoft has been making all these wonderful promises of opening up APIs and protocols. The company just forgot to mention that it is only obeying the orders of the European Union court system.

If someone stole from you, and the courts ordered them to pay you back, how would you feel about them holding a self-serving press conference to tell you how generous they are? Or, as Michael Tiemann, head of the Open Source Initiative and a Red Hat executive, put it in an OSI blog posting on March 30th, Microsoft’s new weapon against open source: stupidity.

You see some people still believe that Microsoft offering patented protocols under “reasonable and non-discriminatory terms,” or “for free for noncommercial use without fear of lawsuits” is somehow some kind of olive branch to the open-source community.

As Tiemann put it: “A free-of-cost license that prohibits commercial use is useless to open-source developers. And therefore I cannot understand why anybody would think that Microsoft is doing the open-source community any favors.”

He’s got that right.

When Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, talked about a bridge between Microsoft and open source at the recent Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco, it sounded good. The line that engineers could more done with these issues than lawyers ever could was one calculated to warm the hearts of the open-source community.

There’s just one problem. Microsoft still holds the threat of patents over any commercial use of its intellectual property. Microsoft still won’t say what patents it claims are used in Linux. Microsoft still tries to fog up the fact that it’s been required to open up, for example, its network file protocols to Samba.

Microsoft seems to have pulled every dirty trick in its book to get Open XML turned into an OSI standard. To sum up, Microsoft is still not trustworthy.

I know some people, such as Jason Perlow at ZDNet, believe that you can trust Microsoft, at least as long as you keep a close eye on them, and that Microsoft is beginning to see the advantages of working with, rather than against, open source.

I don’t buy it. I’m certain there are some engineers at Microsoft who would have no problem working together with open-source developers. But I also believe that, so long as Steve Ballmer heads the company, Microsoft will never be a real partner for open source. Or, for that matter, that Microsoft would prove a trustworthy partner to any company not under its thumb.

Perlow compares Microsoft’s relationship to open source with the Soviet Union’s Glasnost period when it was opening up to the West for the first time. It’s a good analogy, but I don’t think it’s an accurate one. Come the day when, say, Mark Shuttleworth cribs from Reagan and demands, “Mr. Ballmer, tear down these patent walls” and Microsoft does so, then I’ll believe that the Evil Empire has changed its ways. Until then, I’m going to trust Microsoft about as far as I can throw Ballmer.

A version of this story was first published in Linux-Watch.