Open Source vs. Shared Source – Hunt for Value

Vendors are beginning to take a few pages from the Open Source playbook, offering devs more access to code and community for paid software. OET takes a look at the back-and-forth over the question of how much value “Shared Source” truly offers,

Microsoft is one of the more visible of a number of vendors (including Oracle, Sun, Macromedia, SAP, among others) that has emerged with a variant on the traditional tight-gripped license on software source code. These new “Shared Source” licenses for commercial products give developers much more access to code than ever before.

But, despite the move to adopt some Open Source principals of sharing and community, some core Open Source devs are speaking out against the moves as half-measures. Not surprisingly, Microsoft is aggressively defending its approach as a realistic balance between “free software” and “the need to protect intellectual property”.

Meanwhile, the average commercial developer working for a commercial company is stuck somewhere in the middle, wondering what is the real truth (or the real hype) behind the emerging Shared Source saga. OET takes a look at the concerns Open Source devs have over Shared Source, and how Microsoft is responding to criticisms, and in some areas, adjusting its program.

In a nutshell, shared source is a take-off on the open source model without all the benefits that open source offers. Shared source licenses do not allow developers to modify the source code and certain portions of the source code remain hidden and it cannot be redistributed.

Point: “Shared” is Still too Closed, Controlled…
“Shared source projects are closed communities driven by one organization that controls the development,” Brian Kelly a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Fenwick & West LLP told OET. “The controlling organization draws a hard box around the parameters of what it wants a particular application to accomplish. Then it defines the community, which becomes the center of activity. If there are contributions to that application, those will get sent to the controlling organization, which will make the decision about whether or not it gets incorporated.”

Counterpoint: Shared Source Comes in Multiple Forms…
“When critics say that shared source is too closed, it is because they are most familiar with the Windows shared source program,” Jason Matesow, head of Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative told OET. “Today, Microsoft has 12 different shared source offerings.”
Matesow points to Microsoft’s CE.NET Shared Source Program License that allows developers to modify and redistribute modifications of the code. The ASP.NET Samples Source Licensing Program allows developers to go a step further and commercialize their code modifications – with no fee to Microsoft.

Point: Shared Source Doesn’t Allow Developer Feedback…
J.T. Smith, director of technology for Web Den Interactive, a Vernon Hills, Ill.-based software development firm, told OET that shared source was an option for his smaller company because it doesn’t allow developers to modify or redistribute anything.

“Shared source only allows you to look at the code,” says Smith. “So that really wasn’t an option for us because it doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of feedback from the developer’s community. It gets Microsoft somewhere because a few people that were starting to shut doors on them are now letting them in again because they can get access to it.”

Counterpoint: Shared Source Allows Developers to Fix Bugs…
Matesow points to CE source code agreements once again to refute this point. The business opportunity category Microsoft’s shared source initiatives not only allows core system integrators, silicon vendors and OEMs to redistribute modified source code for commercial purposes – and copyright those modifications – it helps the greater good.

“If there is an integrity level change that fixes something in the kernel it forces a mandatory reassignment of copyright back to Microsoft that ensures the platform remains consistent and stable,” says Matesow. “OEMs like Hitachi are delivering products to market because they have the tools they need and the business relationship they require to then have successful commercial efforts.”

Point: Shared Source is a Trap…
Eric S. Raymond, co-founder and president of Open Source Initiative told OET that there are disturbing problems associated with shared source licenses. He says companies that use shared source are merely attempting to capture some of the marketing buzz around the open source licensing and are infecting people’s brains.

“Shared source offers no benefit to the developer, other than the occasional ability to anticipate bugs — but you can’t fix them because they don’t allow you to modify the source,” notes Raymond. “Microsoft retains the right to sue you over anything that you learn from looking at its source code. So shared source is actually a poison pill. It’s diabolically clever. That’s why I always advice programmers not go anywhere near shared source. It’s a trap.”

Counterpoint: Shared Source will Enable Future Innovation…
Microsoft could not agree less with Raymond. Eric Rudder, senior vice president of the Developer Platform and Evangelism Division of Microsoft, argues that shared source will prove a boon to developers.

“The academic community plays a critical role in the software ecosystem as the launching pad for the next generation of developers,” says Rudder. “Academia has delivered many breakthrough innovations through pure research. With the Shared Source CLI implementation, we hope to see great innovation around .NET technology.” Microsoft’s Shared Source CLI, or Rotor, implementation is already promote language innovation and XML Web services research, he added.