Microsoft Joins the ASF: Can They Be Trusted?

by Ostatic Staff - Jul. 28, 2008

Microsoft announced on Friday that it would be joining the Apache Software Foundation, one of the leading organizations in the open-source world. Microsoft became a platinum sponsor of the ASF, which costs $100,000/year and is the highest level of sponsorship that the foundation offers. In a blog posting announcing the sponsorship, Sam Ramji, Microsoft's senior director of platform strategy and head of its open source software lab, indicated that this demonstrates Microsoft's interest in working along with Apache on many projects. At the same time, he wrote that this does not mean Microsoft is turning its back on proprietary software, including its IIS Web server.

Ramji's announcement was released along with a statement, as Mike Gunderloy reported on Friday, that the Open Specification Promise (OSP) will now apply to more licenses and protocols than before.

The $100K donation, while obviously helpful to the ASF, is presumably not a make-or-break budget item. For Microsoft, the donation is even less significant, given the huge profits that the company continues to make. More important than the money is thus the statement that the donation makes -- that Microsoft is reaching out to the open-source world, and is trying to find ways to coexist with it, with some degree of harmony. Many open-source advocates have long seen Microsoft as a large, bullying enemy. Statements by Microsoft officials about open source, including veiled threats about intellectual property violations in Linux and other software, have been common over the last few years.

It is thus refreshing to see Ramji not just giving money to the Apache foundation, but also indicating that the donation and sponsorship continues work that was done previously, on such projects as Apache POI, Axis2, and Jakarta, among others. Of these, I find POI (a set of Java APIs for manipulating Microsoft Office documents) to be the most interesting; if Microsoft is helping with this project, then the odds are that much better that open-source developers will have access to Microsoft data files in the future, without having to reverse-engineer the formats or rely upon buggy specifications.

Bruce Perens, a well-known open-source advocate, cautioned on Slashdot that "there's much reason for caution." Perens, who earlier this year asked the community to support his election to the board of the Open Source Initiative, warned in his posting that Microsoft may be using this donation to buy their way into the open-source world, thus gaining some open-source credibility when dealing with companies and governments. He worries that Microsoft is looking to hijack the open-source process, basing these worries on a culture of "dirty-fighting tactics" that he sees as central to how Microsoft operates.