Why Microsoft Loves GPL 3.0: Changing Strategies

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Two Slashdot posts and a long meeting with Microsoft really got me to thinking about whether Microsoft really likes, or doesn't like, the new GPL version and how its strategy, with regard to open source in general, has been changing over the past few years.


It got me thinking about four facts: Buyers don't like change; the new IT priority is interoperability; IT likes simple homogeneity (it often seems they'd like to return to one big mainframe); and IT is not a line organization (and has no line authority). Knowing that, I immediately understood Microsoft's strategy and why, while it would never use it, it loves the 3.0 version of the GPL.




Going into this decade, Microsoft was still on a path of being largely closed with an overarching strategy that its tools would work best, or only, with other Microsoft tools. Microsoft ran against any concept that reduced its ability to protect the products it had developed and the ecosystem it had so painstakingly put in place.


However, that was not working, so its strategy had to change. IT buyers increasingly were demanding to see Microsoft's code, and Microsoft seemed to be getting less and less of the UNIX migration opportunities. New employees increasingly advocated the benefits of open source, and as a competitive response, Microsoft hired aggressively from the open source community, creating a new decision core in the company.


The concept of shared source was created to address the need for disclosure, and the priority to link Microsoft products was increasingly replaced by a new priority: to be the best at interoperability. Top executives, often contrary to public statements, felt strongly that if Microsoft had the best offering, then interoperability would create a bridge to Microsoft products and, if it didn't have the best products, the lack of interoperability would only slow Microsoft's decline. In effect, interoperability leadership would force the company to build more competitive offerings because non-competitive products would die off quickly.


More important, particularly in large shops, interoperability had become a huge problem, and if newer Microsoft products did that better, it was believed that this benefit could drive upgrades and more licenses and, once in place, the constant drive for homogeneity would cause IT to phase out the products that didn't interoperate as well.


Simply said, if the strategy is successful, the new Microsoft products come in because they are the best bridge between varieties of vendors, and they force out the products that, for whatever reason, don't embrace interoperability and create IT problems.

GPL 3.0, the Big IT Problem, and Freedom for Whom?


If you haven't read through the two Slashdot posts, the first is on why TiVo won't be able to use a GPL 3.0 offering and the second tries to respond to it. But the discussion that follows both posts points to why Microsoft likes the GPL 3.0 a great deal and why it dovetails into its strategy.


The GPL 3.0, which some argue was corrupted by IBM to allow its kind of TiVoization, optimizes freedom for the individual user and limits freedom for the business user. And it benefits the user that can actually code, because if you can't code, you can't use the freedoms anyway.


This could mean an entire class of businesses that Microsoft wants to capture now can't use anything under this new license, and apparently there is little clarity on how broad the coverage will be. Now we add that this is a license change, and the fact that IT isn't a line organization, and we understand why Microsoft is almost giddy about this thing.


You may recall that a few years back Microsoft changed its own license terms. It tried to make its license simpler, and the backlash from IT was near catastrophic for the company and drove home the point that IT really doesn't like change. But, more subtly was the realization that as a non-line organization, IT doesn't get a lot of legal support.


Now realize that most companies are not in the software business, and their legal organizations are set up and trained to deal with the problems of the industry they are in. They don't like work coming from a staff organization in the first place, and a new license, which legal views as a contract that changes the company's rights with regard to its own intellectual property, should be vastly easier to say no to than almost anything else I can think of.


The intellectual property of a company is not owned by the CIO, it is owned by the CEO (it's actually owned by the company owners/stockholders, but the CEO and the Board act as proxy for them). As such, it isn't even clear the CIO can legally bind the company to the 2.0 version of the GPL, let alone the 3.0 version.


Finally, we add to this that the latest major changes in the GPL were to prevent some of the Microsoft alliances, which improve interoperability, and you can see why the Microsoft executives appear to be much less outspoken on the GPL and suddenly seem to like it a lot. As a side note, this would be true if it had simply divided the Linux community.


Wrapping Up


So the GPL 3.0 is different and IT doesn't like different, appears to work against interoperability, may be helping to drive some of the recent Microsoft-Linux deals, helps makes Microsoft appear to be the better homogeneous choice. It likely will force IT to engage legal (or the other way around), which probably wasn't involved in approving this license in the first place (and likely won't like the 3.0 Changes).


In the end, and this probably should have been obvious, GPL3 focuses on only one small customer set, those that actually want to collaboratively use and modify source code. That group is likely insignificant when taken against the total potential population for Linux today and, if Microsoft plays its cards right, this new license could once again open up the general market to Microsoft's user/IT buyer/general business-targeted products.


What I think is particularly interesting is throughout history, Microsoft has been blessed by competitors who, after starting well, have focused on Micosoft and not their customers. The recent changes to the GPL 3.0 draft would indicate that this blessing is holding. No wonder Redmond seems to be so happy.