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Microsoft Embracing Open Source?

Posted @ 12:59 pm by Arthur Wait | Category: Technology | 0 Comments

Microsoft announced last week that it released its new web development product, ASP.Net MVC 1.0, as Open Source Software (OSS). While this is not the company’s first open source product, it is arguably its most significant (certainly for web developers, anyway). ASP.Net MVC (Model View Controller) is a major addition to Microsoft’s web development platform. MVC will allow web developers to create more flexible and testable websites than is possible with the current ASP.Net Web Forms model (we’ll do an in depth review of ASP.Net MVC in a future blog post).

So what led Microsoft to release MVC as open source, effectively giving it away?

Microsoft and the OSS movement have had a long, tempestuous relationship. OSS advocates view Microsoft’s closed, proprietary model of distribution as out-dated, protectionist, and greedy. Microsoft, on the other hand, has traditionally seen the open source model as commercially unsustainable (“how can you make money as a software developer if you give it away,” goes Microsoft’s reasoning). Steve Balmer once famously called Linux, the popular open source operating system, “a cancer.”

But, as is often the case with Microsoft, the company’s position has evolved over the last few years. The shift has been driven primarily through Microsoft’s Developer Division—the group which creates the tools third-party developers (such as SolutionSet) use to build software on top of Microsoft Windows. The Developer Division’s customers had become increasingly vocal about the lack of transparency Microsoft provided into its development platforms, like .Net, and insisted that the company listen more closely to outside suggestions and criticisms.

Eventually, Microsoft heard these pleas and took some of them to heart. In recent years, the company has started offering very early “preview” versions of its software while still in development. The previews have allowed us to begin learning the new products, kick the tires, and provide invaluable feedback to the Microsoft development teams. Feedback has, in some cases, had significant impacts on the final versions of the software.

Microsoft has also started making available the source code to some of its products, allowing third-party developers to see exactly how the company creates its software. The source code to the .Net Framework itself is in fact available—anyone curious about how the Framework was constructed can browse through the code and even see internal comments left inline by Microsoft engineers.

But the above initiatives are not OSS. Customers must still adhere to Microsoft’s licensing terms and are not permitted to modify or redistribute the source code. With ASP.Net MVC, anyone can take Microsoft’s code, change it, add to it, copy it, resell it, whatever. Microsoft’s open source license is remarkably permissive—in fact, it’s barely a page long.

So what will Microsoft gain from this? Clearly the company is not giving away MVC out of altruism. Rather, it is likely hoping that it will draw more developers over to its larger product base. Although anyone will be able to take the MVC code and use it anywhere (efforts are already afoot to get it up and running on Linux), the reality is that the vast majority of developers will work with it in Microsoft Visual Studio, bind it to a Microsoft SQL Server Database, and run it on a Microsoft Windows server…all of which require serious financial investments.

Nevertheless, Microsoft is taking steps in the right direction. The more access we have to the inner-workings of the company’s products, the more we’ll be able to trust and adopt them.

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