Who would have thought that the ultimate battle between Google and Microsoft for the conquest of the Internet would be arbitraged by the Open Source Initiative approving a document from their archenemy twin sister the FSF (Free Software Foundation)?
Let me introduce the protagonists.
The FSF and its founding father Richard Stallman have a philosophy: Software should break free from the enslaving chains of copyright as we know it today. Everybody should have the right to use, modify and run any software as they wish. In a sense software is thought, software is speech, and as such its freedom should be protected under the 1st amendment. In this story, FSF people are the thinkers, the philosophers and the strategists: they are the Founding Fathers of the movement.
The OSI (Open Source Initiative) and its 2 founders Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond, is more of a recent, pragmatic initiative. Mr. Perens was project leader for the famous Linux distro Debian (1) while Mr. raymond is an original and controversial mind, a libertarian best known for a fantastic paper called the “Cathedral and the Bazaar”. Neither of them seems to care much about the philosophy or even the long term goals of the FSF. They want their movement to be a force with which to be reckoned: they are the warriors of the free market, the anarchists of the free trade: what matters is the developer freedom to use his power as he sees fit.
Of course neither the OSI nor the FSF are saying it too overtly but they hate each other. As for the time being, they agreed more or less about the means so it seems to naive observers that they are getting along just fine. Well fine indeed, just like dysfunctional parents staying together for the sake of the kids.
In many respects, the quarrel between the FSF and the OSI is also of oedipal nature. The FSF parents are the thinkers, the original hackers, the geniuses, while the rebellious OSI kids are the pragmatics, the short-reward-seekers; in short, the average yet talented engineers: the archetypal contributors. In summary, the Ancients vs. the Moderns, the doctrinaire vs. the pragmatic: nothing new under the sky.
But how does this affect the conflict for the Net domination between the 2 Titans Google and Microsoft?
The GNU AGPLv3 has many interesting characteristics but one is of key importance here: it does not allow ASP/SaaS providers to use GPLed software without distribution and disclosure of the source code. Section 13 of the GNU AGPLv3 states:
Notwithstanding any other provision of this License, if you modify the Program, your modified version must prominently offer all users interacting with it remotely through a computer network (if your version supports such interaction) an opportunity to receive the Corresponding Source ...
And that’s a problem for SaaS companies because if AGPLed software has been modified and/or mixed with their proprietary code, theymust release all the AGPLed code modified including all the proprietary code with which it has been mixed.
Imagine what would happen if all the open source software used by Google were AGPLv3. No more Office-like applications, no more photo or video sharing, no more messaging software used without mandatory disclosure of the Google-ified source code.
And of course because Microsoft has been so slow in entering the Internet game, it’s an unexpected bliss that gives them plenty of time to catch up. Not everybody will replace their Office suite with Google office-like services (yet) but Microsoft needs even more time to catch-up with many sharing/social applications offered by Google. Today, Microsoft's strategy is pretty clearly laid down.
First Microsoft buys itself even more time by acquiring Yahoo!, a decent ticket to enter the Internet arena. Then with time and money (now Microsoft has both) they will build an application framework that circumvents GNU AGPL "issues". For Google to do the same, it would require pretty heavy-lifting re-engineering since Google is stuck with enough server farms that it is consuming more electricity than a medium-sized American State.
Google would be stuck with GPLv2 software slowly transitioning towards the GPLv3 and arguably towards the AGPLv3. No more community bug fixes, no more testing, no more maintenance and ultimately no more innovation. Of course Google could also choose to release most of their SaaS source code but then it would only accelerate Microsoft's Internet effort.
In conclusion, the all powerful Microsoft is on the verge of winning an important battle against its archenemy Google don't-be-evil-yet-Net-monopolistic-in-nature just because the latest FSF grandchild of anarcho-theorician Mr. Stallman has received implicitly (2) the imprimatur of his stealth nemesis libertarian-pragmatic OSI’s founder, Mr. Raymond.
Who needs Shakespeare when you have access to a web browser?
More posts on Google:
- Google to users: you're not the boss of me now!
- Freedom of Speech: the long tail of Google
- Goggle = Microsoft, same fights, same tactics, different monopoly
More posts on Microsoft: