Microsoft Newly Embracing Open Source Makes Sense

A well-run business doesn't wait until it's lost the battle to co-opt the model picking away at it.

Microsoft seems to be spending a lot of time lately trying to convince the open source world it really means it no harm. And, just maybe, it's true.Robert Mullins' blog:

See, Microsoft is about making money. It's a business. When a business sees dollars being siphoned off by other sources, it begins to pay attention. A well-run business doesn't wait until it's lost the battle to co-opt the model picking away at it.

Stuart McKee, Microsoft's National Technology Officer for the U.S., spoke this week at the Open Source Business Conference (hosted by Network World's sister publication, Computerworld) and pretty much said as much. As quoted yesterday in

It's not that we're altruistic, necessarily, but our key desire is to satisfy customers. We build software for a living ... and we understand profoundly that a diverse ecosystem is absolutely critical to satisfy the needs of our customers and, increasingly, that ecosystem does include open source.

As many in the open source community point out, "open source" and "free" are not synonymous. While a large part of the community comprises free software advocates, people still need to make a living. At a South By Southwest Interactive Festival panel I attended earlier this month, the entire discussion revolved around how to make open source work as a business model. Some panelists seemed almost apologetic about the need to make a buck. "I don't want to compete on file systems or storage. ... We want to compete on social stuff."prepping the release (limited free access to articles on the site, GenomeWeb) of an open source bioinformatics toolkit as an extension of its .NET Framework. It's already in beta.

Evan Prodromou, founder and CEO of open source microblogging company StatusNet Inc., felt no need to apologize and explained it thusly: "Whenever you talk about commercial open source software, the money comes from whatever the user can't download. They can't download your time. ... It's the things around it."

Brad Fitzpatrick, the founder of LiveJournal (which he basically made open source because he was "too lazy" to keep adding the code hacks users sent him - his words) and now a technical staffer at Google, pointed out that an entire system doesn't have to be open.

"I think you should give away everything that you don't care about competing on," he said at the panel.

That seems slightly applicable to Microsoft in its announcement this week that it's

GenomeWeb said Simon Mercer, director of health and well-being external research at Microsoft, detailed the Microsoft Biology Foundation project at the Association for Biomolecular Resource Facilities conference in Sacramento.

According to the Microsoft Codeplex site, this is what the project will do:

The Microsoft Biology Foundation (MBF) is a language-neutral bioinformatics toolkit built as an extension to the Microsoft .NET Framework. Currently it implements a range of parsers for common bioinformatics file formats; a range of algorithms for manipulating DNA, RNA, and protein sequences; and a set of connectors to biological Web services such as NCBI BLAST. MBF is available under an open source license, and executables, source code, demo applications, and documentation are freely downloadable.

And Microsoft seems perfectly giddy to be working in the open source arena:

We are extrememly excited to be breaking new ground for Microsoft in the area of Open Source, but more importantly are looking forward to helping the scientific community become better equiped for solving the complex challenges they fact in the area of genomics and healthcare.

But remember, it's an extension to the .NET Framework. That's proprietary, Microsoft makes money from it. Even though this project won't directly contribute to Microsoft's bottom line — the data and tools to be worked into this project are for the common good and will be open and available to any and all — if some who contribute to the project get warm and fuzzy feelings about Microsoft's collaboration, well, that can't be bad, right?  

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