The Microsoft-Novell Deal and Trust in Princes

Monday Aug 25th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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Forced to choose, the average Free and open sourced-based (FOSS) business is going to choose business interests over FOSS every time.

"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.

We may have seen an example of this behavior last week, when Red Hat and its community distribution Fedora were issuing vague but ominous warnings not to use the company repositories until further notice, because of what eventually turned out to be a security breach. Until the announcement, Red Hat and Fedora seemed perfect examples of how well corporate and FOSS interests could co-exist. But last week, with Red Hat's security at risk as well as Fedora's, suddenly the Fedora chair, through no fault of his own, was reduced to sounding like a corporate apologist, issuing vague pronouncements and refusing to provide details.

Faced with the crisis, Red Hat-Fedora chose to respond from a business rather than a FOSS perspective, and probably had very little choice in the matter. All the same, it is in stark contrast to how quickly the Debian distribution moved to acknowledge and correct its own security problems last May.

What intrigues me about the Red Hat-Fedora crisis is how closely the anger in some Fedora circles resembles that over the extension of the Microsoft-Novell deal. It is not as intense, and Fedora is trusted far more in the community than Novell, but the sense of betrayal is much the same in both cases. It comes, I think, from the mixture of distrust and faith that the FOSS community displays towards business.

When you hold such mutually exclusive feelings, it is easy to jump from one to another. Feelings of betrayal come very easily when you are already halfway to mistrusting already. The fact that you trusted at all may only make you all the more angry.

Crime and No Punishment

In the case of Novell's agreements with Microsoft, I suspect that much of the original anger stemmed from the fact that many regarded Novell's purchase of the popular SuSE distribution as a kind of community trust, while Novell saw it as simply another potentially profitable acquisition. When this disregard of community feeling was joined by dealing with the always-hated Microsoft, the response was only predictable.

Since then, Novell has walked softly in the community. Many, too, may have believed that the provisions of the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) specifically designed to block similar deals in the future to have put the company in its place. After all, Novell needs to obey the license if it is going to distribute a GNU/Linux distribution.

But, the truth is that, by preventing similar deals, the GPL has given Novell a commercial advantage until its original deal with Microsoft expires four years from now. From a purely business perspective, what is more logical than using that advantage as strongly as possible while you still can? The community, though, would rather see repentance or utter ostracization, both of which are far more emotionally exciting than accepting that corporations are going to act like corporations, no matter what FOSS affiliations they have.

What the community needs to be more aware of is that the interaction between FOSS and business is an alliance of convenience. The two can certainly co-exist, and both can benefit from doing so. But, forced to choose, the average FOSS-based business is going to choose business interests over FOSS every time. No company's values are those of a FOSS advocate -- at least, not for very long -- and assuming that they are is simply a mistake in logic.

From this perspective, the extension of the Microsoft-Novell deal is not only predictable, but routine. Really, it's no more than business as usual. The only surprising thing is that many of us in the FOSS community haven't realized that yet.

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