COMMENTARY–Is Microsoft slowly becoming a more open source company?

This week Tom Rizzo, the director of product management in Microsoft’s SQL Server unit said they are considering making the source code for its SQL Server database available to customers.

“It’s not finalised. It’s not anything there, but if a lot of customers demand it, we’ll definitely look at doing shared source with SQL Server,” He told CNET Journalist, Martin LaMonica.

Interestingly enough the company also announced this week the price of the new SQL Server 2005 enterprise edition has been raised in the US by up to 25 percent, from US$19,999 to US$24,999 per processor.

So is this a turning point in the companies strategy, a smokescreen, or another liberal use of the word open or shared that vendors such as IBM, Oracle, BEA, CA and others are all gratuitously using to appear as an open source friendly company? It doesn’t seem politically correct to be proud of being a proprietary software company in this day and age.

Firstly, how many customers really want the code to a database? When choosing a database, considerations like features, price, scalability and the pool of talent in the workforce that are skilled to man a certain database come to mind. I doubt many organisations or developers really care about having or seeing the source code of a database. They just want it to work with the minimum of fuss.

More importantly, what is the point of having the source code if it doesn’t empower the developer or organisation to make a change or a difference? Shared source is not open source. It does not come under an approved open source Open Source Initiative (OSI) license and only allows an organisation to see the code, most likely under non-disclosure agreement, and not allow organisations to actually do anything with the code they see.

The only reason Microsoft seem to make available code under the shared source programs is to appease customers, mostly governments, to keep them happy there are no back doors in their code. One does wonder how many of these organisations really have the skills required to audit the code to be of any real use or come to any solid conclusions.

However, Arjen Lentz, who works for open source database company MySQL AB, pointed out to me this week that Microsoft do indeed make genuine open source contributions. For example, the WIX toolkit is a truly open source project Microsoft have been involved in and actively help maintain with the community. MySQL have even used the toolkit for their installer for Windows.

So it seems the term open source is understood. Unfortunately, the reality is the industry is greying, if not watering down, the term open source.

It seems convienient for companies, not only Microsoft, but others such as Oracle to choose their words when flaunting the term open. Open computing, open standards, open source, leveraging open source, open API’s among others are remarkably close sounding terms and make great press headlines(count them). Behind the scenes, how open and free (as in freedom) are their products and services? Not much it seems.

Many database companies might talk about their -open sourced” or cheaper lower-end database offering but are generally limited or otherwise crippled versions: limited number of users, CPUs, RAM, data storage, no clustering, and so on.

What is hard to judge and measure is the uptake of open source offerings such as MySQL and PostgreSQL that can be used for nothing, or at the most, very little. Not only that, these databases don’t restrict usage, and users are allowed to choose their own support. They might not have the functionality of databases from Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM, but can empower the developer to make changes to the code shipped. For developers not interested in the source code, open source databases offer the flexibility of a company to choose their support.

I should probably note that I think both proprietary and open source/free software models can and should co-exist. My gripe is the façade proprietary software companies are undertaking in their marketing to curry favour with open source developers and advocates.

What do you think of open, or shared source databases? Does the source code matter to you or are you more interested in factors such as functionality and cost?

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