Should Microsoft Really Bundle Open Source Software?

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Ayende recently wrote about Microsoft’s “annoying” tendency to duplicate the efforts of perfectly capable Open Source Software already in existence. In the post, he references this post by Scott Bellware which lists several cases in which Microsoft duplicated the efforts of OSS software.

Fear Factor

Ayende is not convinced by the fear factor argument around issues of software pedigree, patents, and legal challenges. Jon Galloway wrote about this argument a while ago in his post Why Microsoft can’t ship open source code.

In his post, Ayende dismisses this argument as “lawyer-paranoia”. While I agree to some extent that it is paranoia, not all paranoia is bad. I think this point bears more thoughtful responses than simply dismissing it as FUD.

Microsoft really is a huge fat target with a gigantic bullseye on its forehead in the form of lots and lots of money. At that size, the rules of engagement changes when compared to smaller companies.

Nobody is going after small fries who release open source code such as Ayende or myself. But as soon a big fry like Microsoft starts bundling open source code, watch out for the armies of patent trolls, lawyers in tow, coming out of the woodwork.

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As an aside, some commenters mention the “commercial friendliness” of the licenses of the projects they would like bundled such as the BSD and MIT licenses. However, as far as I know, none of these licenses have any patent protection in the same way that the GPL does. Perhaps Microsoft should require bundled OSS software to be licensed with the GPL. I kid! I kid! We’d probably see Steve Ballmer grooving to an IPod in a pink leotard before that happens.

Back to the point at hand. Having said all that, while I think this is a difficult challenge, I don’t think it is an insurmountable challenge. Microsoft can afford an army of lawyers and hopefully some of them are extremely bright and can come up with creative solutions that might allow Microsoft to leverage and even bundle Open Source software in a safe manner. After all, they already face the same risk by allowing any employee to write and ship code. Employees are not immune to lapses of judgement.

We already see progress happening in regards to Microsoft and Open Source. The IronRuby project will accept source code contributions, but most likely with some strict limitations and with required paperwork like the Free Software Foundation does. Progress can be made on this front, but it won’t happen overnight.

How Should They Choose?

For the sake of argument, suppose that Microsoft deals with all the legal issues and does decide to start bundling OSS software. How should they choose which software to bundle?

For mock object frameworks, Scott Bellware mentions Rhino Mocks, a mock framework I’ve written about a few times and would agree with this choice. But what about NMock which has been around longer as far as I know. I think Scott and Ayende would both agree that popularity or seniority should not trump technical quality in choosing which project to bundle. I personally would choose Rhino Mocks over NMock any day of the week.

Bellware’s post also lists NUnit. While NUnit has been around longer than MbUnit, in my opinion I think it is pretty clear that MbUnit is technically a much better testing framework. Naturally, I’m sure there are many fans of NUnit who would disagree vehemently. Therein lies the conflict. No matter which framework Microsoft chooses, there will be many who are unhappy with the choice.

If Microsoft had chosen to not write its own test framework, I fear they would have chosen NUnit over MbUnit simply because it’s more well known or for political reasons. Such a choice would have the potential to hurt a project like MbUnit in the never ending competition for users and contributors.

The fact that the MS Test sucks so much is, in a way, a boon to NUnit and MbUnit. Please understand I’m not saying that “Because choosing a project is hard, it shouldn’t or can’t be done”. I’m merely suggesting that if we’re clamoring for Microsoft to start bundling instead of duplicating, we ought to offer ideas on how that should happen and be prepared for the ramifications of such choices.

So what do I think they should do?

Let’s look at one situation in particular that appears to be an annoying duplication of efforts. A while back, Microsoft identified a business opportunity to create an integrated development IDE suite which included code coverage, bug tracking, unit testing, etc... They came out with Team System which included a unit testing framework that wasn’t even near par with NUnit or MbUnit.

This is a situation in which many have argued that Microsoft should have bundled NUnit with Team System rather than writing their own.

While we can continue to argue the merits of whether Microsoft should or shouldn’t bundle Open Source software, the official stance currently appears to be that it is too much of a liability to do so. So rather than keep arguing that point, let’s take a step back and for the sake of argument, accept it as a given.

So given that Microsoft couldn’t bundle NUnit, what should have they done?

They should have given developers a choice.

What I would have liked to have seen is for Team System to provide extensibility points which make it extremely easy to swap out MS Test for another testing framework. MS Test isn’t the money maker for Microsoft, it’s the whole integrated suite that brings in the moolah, so being able to replace it doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

Given the inability to bundle NUnit, I can understand why Microsoft would write their own test framework. They wanted a complete integrated suite. It wouldn’t work to ship something without a test framework so they provided a barely adequate one. Fine. But why not allow me to switch that out with MbUnit and still have the full non-degraded integrated experience?

Microsoft could have then worked with the OSS communities to provide information and maybe even some assistance with integrating with Team System.

This is not unprecedented by any means. It’s very similar to how Microsoft cooperates with control vendors who build WinForms and ASP.NET widgets and controls.

Microsoft doesn’t provide a GridView, tells us developers that’s all we’ll ever need for displaying data, and then closes the door on other control vendors who might want to provide developers with an alternative grid control. Hell no.

Instead, they make it easy for control vendors to provide their own controls and have a first-class integrated experience (with design time support etc...) within the Visual Studio IDE because they recognize they don’t have the bandwidth to build everything top shelf. This sort of forward thinking should apply anytime they plan to ship a crappy stopgap implementation.

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