Will Microsoft's 'Make Web Not War' Attract Open Source Developers?

Monday Mar 14th 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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Microsoft is nurturing a partnership with open source developers, a move that ‘s producing a mixed response.

"Make Web Not War" sounds like a slogan that an aging ad executive would coin in a desperate attempt to sound hip to twenty-something developers -- most of whom have probably never heard the original catchphrase opposing the Vietnam War.

But whatever the origins of the name, Make Web Not War is the tagline for Microsoft's strategy to encourage open source development for its applications. It has been used in the United States, England, and Europe. In particular, it has been used in Canada for community conferences held in the last two years in Toronto and Montreal.

This May 7, Make Web Not War comes to Vancouver in a day of two-track presentations and panel discussions, as well as donations for local groups to put on their own events around the same time.

The promotion includes a coding contest for applications that aid non-profits (named, with more ad-exec archness, "Code Your Art Out"), and is advertised by its own blog regular references on Microsoft Canada's Port 25 blog.

This, clearly, is an event that is well-funded and professionally organized. However, so far, the reactions that it evokes are decidedly mixed, and announcement of the event has caused considerable discussion.

The local Drupal, Ruby on Rails, and WordPress groups have already agreed to put on associated events, and, as I write, the Vancouver Linux User Group is debating whether to host its own event. By contrast, the Vancouver PHP User Association has declined to participate for both organizational and philosophical reasons.

It's all a local example of what can happen when Microsoft approaches the free and open source software (FOSS) community bearing gifts and making overtures of friendship.

Claims of a New Microsoft

In Canada, Make Web Not War is a group effort of at least a dozen Microsoft employees, ranging from evangelists to members of Microsoft's community engagement, web and open source strategy teams.

The effort is spearheaded by Nik Garkusha, Microsoft Canada's open source strategy lead. After stressing the Canadian origin of the promotion, Garkusha adds, "A lot of the work is really about making open source a first class citizen on the Microsoft platform -- that includes web platforms and cloud platforms. Bottom line is, we try to encourage more cross-pollination. Essentially, what we do is engage with communities, develop some relationships, [and] work with influencers to help us get better feedback about what we need to improve and how to drive more interesting development."

According to Garkusha, the previous two years' promotions have proved so successful that this years' should be larger than ever. He says that last year's event in Montreal was the leading topic on Twitter in Canada, and points to new projects such as the effort to make the FOSS project Tiki Wiki interoperable with Windows Azure as an example of the benefits that can come from the promotion.

"We have had an overwhelmingly positive response," Garkusha. "People are very happy to see Microsoft more involved in various communities. Very rarely do we get an email or a flame saying, 'Microsoft die and go to hell.' It does happen, but this is normal for any company that has the variety of different focuses and solutions that Microsoft has."

Yet if outright hostility is rare, skepticism is frequent, and Garkusha and his team regularly encounter people who question their motivations and ability to participate in the FOSS community.

Mostly, he says, skeptics are reacting to a view of Microsoft that is ten or fifteen years out of date. "The reality has changed," he insists. "There are new people at Microsoft, there's a new focus, there are new technologies, there are absolutely new strategies, and the company has changed.

"The tagline of our Make Web Not War events says it all: the war of the platform religions are over. Right now, it's more about being practical, combining various technologies and making them work for customers."

Accepting the Olive Branch

An example of a Vancouver group that officially welcomes Make Web Not War is VanLug, the local Vancouver Users Group.

John Weintraub, chair of Vanlug's board of directors, states that he accepts Microsoft's overtures as sincere. "Here's Microsoft, which is ordinarily a very proprietary-oriented company trying to encourage -- and it's very obvious from their domain name -- peace between the open source community and themselves."

Weintraub mentions that a few board members opposed co-operation with Microsoft, but dismisses them as a minority. "For the most part the board is people who work with Microsoft products as well as Linux. If you work in a mixed environment, with Windows desktops on one end and Linux serves on the backend, you're going to have to work with Microsoft products. And I think that most people are realistic enough to realize that."

VanLUG did feel obliged to voice its disapproval of Microsoft's recent decision not to accept apps licensed under the GNU General Public License, the most popular FOSS license, in its Windows Phone Marketplace.

However, this disapproval is not enough for VanLUG to rule out putting on an event for the promotion.

Nor does it stop Weintraub from suggesting ways to help Microsoft compete against FOSS companies. At a preliminary meeting for the Vancouver event, Weintraub did suggest to Julia Stowell, one of the organizers, that Microsoft "should either consider developing their own version of Linux,and just compete openly against the other varieties of Linux, or else develop the project WINE," which allows Windows programs to run on GNU/Linux. It's advice that he intends to repeat "if we have a chance to make a formal presentation."

Asked whether he worried about negative reactions to VanLUG's dealings with Microsoft, Weintraub says, "I don't think that there'll be much. Most of the people who are willing to develop open source stuff just want to see the community flourish. It's not a large percentage of people who are anti-Microsoft.

"I think that most people are pretty pragmatic. There's ways to be involved in both sides of the software community [that is, proprietary and FOSS], and it shouldn't be treated as an opposition. It should be seen as two different business models, and everybody's in competition with everybody else anyway."

Weintraub concludes, "I think we're going to learn a lot. I don't think there's anything momentous that happens at these events. I think it's more about making overtures and making peace. Ten years ago, [Microsoft was] terribly antagonistic to the open source community, but I think that's changed. I think they're trying to make overtures, and that's what the Make Web Not War Event is all about."

Stepping Away From the Table

Unlike VanLug, the Vancouver PHP User Association has chosen not to participate in this year's Make Web Not War promotion.

Part of this refusal has nothing to do with Microsoft. Rather, after organizing the Open Web Vancouver conference in 2009, the local PHP group has become semi-dormant, and would have trouble gearing up to organize an event just now.

But, Peter Gordon, the contact person for the group, also has practical misgivings about the mechanics of the event. Three or four months, he notes, is hardly enough lead time to find a world-class speaker.

Moreover, the thousand dollars that Microsoft offered the PHP Association would hardly be enough to cover the costs of the event.

"To get a person in for a one night event, organize it, pay for [airline] tickets, per diem food and entertainment and arranging for people to come could easily rack up three to five thousand dollars," Gordon says. "And plane tickets are more expensive when people are only in town for a couple of days."

However, for Gordon, the strongest reason for not becoming involved with Make Web Not War is that Microsoft has more to gain from the promotion than the local FOSS community.

"It's probably a really minor event from the point of view of the directors [of Microsoft], Gordon says. "It's nothing compared to the billions that they go through every year. I think they're just on a little bit of a fishing expedition, trying to see what inroads they can make into the community.

"Then there's the cost of the thing: are they trying to tap in to the supposed good will of us merry free software developers?" Suggesting that the promotion costs less than a hundred thousand dollars, if not more like forty thousand, Gordon says, "It's a very good deal for them in fact to raise their profile for that kind of money, isn't it?"

Although Gordon suggests that it is ironic that Microsoft should be the company that brings the local FOSS groups together, he adds that, all the same, "we've done very well without them. Microsoft really needs us more than we need them. Microsoft doesn't have much of an appearance on the collective radar screen of the free and open source software development community -- especially in web development. It's not very relevant." Most companies producing FOSS solutions, Gordon observes, keep only a single Windows workstation or Windows server for testing on Internet Explorer.

The trouble is, according to Gordon, is that despite such promotions, "Microsoft is not really part of the FOSS community. If we're doing things with people who understand the GNU General Public License, we can all work together. It's a fairly straightforward license, and you can rally an enormous amount of people around its ideals because they understand it. For this, we really don't understand what we're doing it for."

"Microsoft is trying to be this big monolithic presence that somehow has an influence on people who code," Gordon says. "So they want to make an impact. But I don't know how much of an impact they're going to make. They might find the mentality of people in Vancouver is different from what they would expect or hope for."

"If Microsoft really wants to prove its worth, it should release software under the GNU General Public License," Gordon suggests. Until then, "to be really cheeky, it would be like we're a group of feminists, but we're getting sponsorship from Larry Flynt [the pornography publisher]. Or we're vegetarians, but we're being sponsored by the Alberta Meat Packagers. They're really not open source."

An Issue in Microcosm

The soul searching that is currently happening in Vancouver is just a local example of what is happening more and more often around the world as Microsoft professes a wish to engage the FOSS community more closely.

Can Microsoft's claim of a change of heart be trusted? Should the claim be seen as the latest in a series of devious tactics to undermine free software? Or is the divided message created by Microsoft's rejection of the GNU General Public License on the one hand and events like Make Web Not War on the other hand be taken as a sign of differences within Microsoft? Such questions have no easy answers.

Nor are the answers always clearer for events like Make Web Not War. Not only does the promotion have a slickness that many FOSS advocates may find distasteful, but the implication in the name that FOSS is made by aging hippies might be interpreted as a hint that Microsoft's attitude has not fundamentally changed.

More importantly, while Microsoft's employees sound sincere, the contents of last year’s promotion suggests that the apparently newfound interest in FOSS is limited. In the 2010 promotion in Montreal, eleven out of twenty speakers were Microsoft employees, and several of the others had long term business relationships with Microsoft. Few were well-known within the FOSS community

Similarly, out of fourteen presentations, from their descriptions, at least nine are about integrating FOSS with Microsoft products -- and others might be as well, if you could view their contents.

In other words, the promotion lacks the interest in FOSS in the abstract that is usually required as proof of a genuine interest in the community.

Nobody, of course, believes for a moment that Red Hat or Novell are unconcerned about how they can profit from FOSS, but a concern for FOSS that does not extend beyond a company's immediate interests is generally taken as proof of a predatory interest only. So far, little in Make Web Not War except the rhetoric suggests an interest in FOSS for its own sake.

At this point, the only thing you can say for sure about Make Web Not War is that it proves that we are well into a new era of relations between Microsoft and FOSS. But whether that new era is one of co-operation or more devious antagonism -- or perhaps a mixture of both -- is still not objectively obvious.

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