Microsoft embraces open source

Until last week Microsoft had never released its software under the GNU General Public Licence, the software licence widely used to licence free and open source software. Now the Redmond-based company, which has made its fortune by selling proprietary software, has release two pieces of software under the GPL version 2.

The move is significant not just for the software that was released – a plugin for education software and virtualisation code – but rather for the fact that Microsoft has consistently avoided embracing the popular open source licence over the years. To date Microsoft has preferred to licence its “open” software under its own shared source initiative including the Microsoft Public Licence which is approved by the Open Source Initiative but not widely used in the open source community.

By establishing its own open source licence rather than adopting the popular GPL licence, Microsoft has avoided legitimising the GPL as a licensing scheme. But now, having released two pieces of software under the GPL2, Microsoft has made an important move that gives added weight to open source licensing.

Hyper-V and Moodle
The first Microsoft GPL release was of 20 000 lines of Hyper-V code for the Linux kernel. This not-insignificant release includes drivers for running Linux on Hyper-V, Microsoft’s virtualisation platform. By releasing the code under the GPL2 Microsoft is giving the Linux drivers to the open source community without reservations. The move is good news for users that want to use Microsoft’s Hyper-V platform to run Linux versions. It is also important to Microsoft which is keen to maintain its position in the virtualisation market in the face of major competition.

The second piece of software released under the GPL by Microsoft was a Microsoft Live plugin for Moodle, an open source education platform. The Live Services plugin integrates Microsoft’s Live@edu services including email, calendar, instant messaging and search into the Moodle platform. The plugin also makes it possible for users to have a single logon for Moodle and Live services.

Pressure point
Microsoft is understandably eager to use these two releases as examples of its “commitment to interoperability and open standards”, as Peter Galli, community manager for Microsoft’s Platform Strategy Group, wrote on his blog (http://port25.technet.com/archive/2009/07/21/the-live-services-plug-in-for-moodle-debuts.aspx). And in recognising the GPL by releasing software under the licence Microsoft is making a strong statement in favour of the GPL.

Some observers, however, are less than enthusiastic, saying that this is nothing more than Microsoft looking to get itself out of a difficult spot. In particular observers such as Stephen Hemminger, an engineer engineer at OSS network vendor Vyatta, allege (http://linux-network-plumber.blogspot.com/2009/07/congratulations-microsoft.html) that Microsoft’s Hyper-V drivers already contained GPL-licensed code mixed with proprietary code in violation of the GPL’s terms. Hemminger suggests that Microsoft was aware of the violation and decided to release the drivers under the GPL to fix the problem.

Either way Microsoft has taken an important step forward in embracing the GPL and the open source community, which does give weight to its claims of being more open than it was in the past.

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Microsoft embraces open source