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The Microsoft-Novell Deal and Trust in Princes

"Put not your trust in princes."

~ Psalms 146:3

So Microsoft and Novell are extending their two year old partnership. Is anyone really surprised? Similar, if smaller, deals are announced by other partners on an almost daily basis. The truth is, the deal is not nearly as insightful as the reactions to it in the free and open source (FOSS) community.

I'm not talking about the extreme reactions here. On the one hand, you have the market-speak of Novell, which ignores the profound uneasiness that the community has about deals that, in the words of Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian, concern "building a bridge between proprietary and open source software," let alone involving a company that is perceived with profound distrust.

On the other hand, you have the attempts to muster outrage (and hence page hits) by the semi-professionals who make a career of sorts by alleging all sorts of conspiracies to destroy FOSS -- most of them external to the community, although internal ones will do if necessary.

For each of these extremes, the extension of the deal was an excuse for dragging out its shopworn rhetoric one more time. But such rhetoric has long ago ceased to be effective. I doubt anyone even listens to it closely any more, outside a handful of true believers -- and it is certainly not insightful in any way.

Instead, what interests me is the genuine surprise expressed by the average member of the FOSS community. How, I wonder, could anyone be surprised, much less shocked? After all, it's been a decade since business discovered FOSS -- time enough for the community to discover the nature of what they've allied with. Yet much of the community retains an ambivalent attitude to FOSS-related business deals that is more than mildly naive.

Alliances don't always mean shared values

Ever since the open source section of the community set out to woo business in the late 1990s, many involved with FOSS have been unsure how to regard business. And they are even less sure how it actually works.

A minority, of course, cling to the original party-line, and condemn business unreservedly. Often in school and young, they have little real world experience to draw upon. This type was epitomized by one young programmer I used to know who used to react to cries of "Evil!" any time marketing strategy was even mentioned, and who assumed it was only a matter of time before the startup he worked for went over to the Dark Side.

Given the academic background of most programmers -- to say nothing of their personality differences with MBAs and marketers -- a less extreme version of this attitude often lingers in the minds of most of us in the FOSS community. Most community members will work with corporations, but, like a MacDonald meeting a Campbell, many have a momentary uneasiness at the outset. They may even have to remind themselves that all that distrust was a long time ago before they can get on with the matter at hand.

Yet, at the same time, community members take the growing use of FOSS in business as a sign that the community is getting its long overdue respect. The same people who talk disparagingly about business' increasing involvement in the community will happily reel off Sun Microsystem's latest open source initiative or how many billions IBM made last year from FOSS as evidence that the community should be treated seriously.

What tends to get lost is this: the fact that business is friendly to FOSS does not mean that it has adopted its values. The free software camp's concern with philosophical and political freedom has almost certainly not been adopted by most FOSS-friendly companies, while the open source camp's emphasis on increased software quality is probably shared by middle-management at best. Business --gasp!-- is interested in FOSS to improve the bottom line, and often no other reason.

Admittedly, sometimes individuals may make a company pro-FOSS for other reasons. The clearest example of such an interaction is the change in Sun Microsystems from an ambivalent FOSS supporter at best to a firm supporter with Jonathan Schwartz. But in an industry in which few people stay at the same job for five years, such support is unreliable at best. What is far more likely is that, while some departments or individuals may continue to support FOSS, a company as a whole will focus on its intended function, and support FOSS when doing so is profitable, and ignoring it when it is not.

I intend no blame when I make this statement. But talking about open-source business is like talking about "compassionate conservatism" -- the very fact that you are qualifying the noun shows that you are talking about something unusual. It also means that you are discussing an entity with a dual nature. In other words, sooner or later, an open source business is going to act more like a business and less like a citizen of the FOSS community (although the wise ones will try to stay on good terms with the community in a sort of specialized marketing effort). Often, the laws that restrict the behavior of companies, especially ones that are publicly traded, leave no choice.

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