Today I moderated a panel at the OSBC entitled “Is the Novell-Microsoft deal good for open source?” There I asked Sam Ramji, Director of Platform Technology Strategy at Microsoft, if Microsoft will be an open source company in the next 5-10 years. He said that the definition of an open source company ranged widely, and he added that Microsoft had been contributing to the community for years, starting with the WSSF project and doing others since.
Microsoft now distributes Linux and is making Novell’s SUSE Linux distro interoperable with Windows. Microsoft now supports Linux running on top of its Virtual Server product, which it has made free, and they have teamed with Xen to make product improvements. Microsoft's CodePlex is very similar to Sourceforge.net.
Based on this and the other factors, I think Microsoft is a new type of early stage open source company. This variety of open source company has evolved from a purely proprietary, closed source company and is treading carefully into the open source world. Recently, for example, they’ve accepted, albeit grudgingly, the stubborn reality of heterogeneous corporate computing environments and they seem to be taking the attitude that if they can’t beat open source, they’ll deny it but ultimately join it.
Consider what Justin Steinman, Novell's Director of Marketing for Linux & Open Platform Solutions, said during the panel about the boon to open source adoption stemming from Microsoft’s deal with Novell: "It drives open source in a broad manner. We have sold more than 40,000 new SUSE Linux subscriptions. We took Linux into Wal-Mart, into HBC, into places like Nationwide. More than 200 customers have taken advantage of it," He added, with some irony, that Microsoft was Novell's No. 1 channel in the first quarter of 2007. "That's Microsoft reps selling SUSE Linux. How many people could have seen that coming?"
Simultaneously, I think that SugarCRM and MySQL are also open source companies. While these companies are the primary innovators around their product, they also get significant innovations related to their products from the community that surrounds them and their projects.
Sugar, for example, is available in 23 languages because of their community. They did a couple of key languages on their own. The community has also contributed to Sugar integration, support, and other things.
All of this makes me think that the definition of an open source company has and will continue to evolve. Microsoft, SugarCRM, and MySQL are, to varying degrees, embracing the reality of open software development. While they offer dual licensing models and may never fully release their code under the GPL (v2 or v3), they deliver highly innovative and disruptive products to avid consumers in an ever-competitive industry requiring the passions and talents of those in the wider software development community. In the process, these companies are forcing us to reconsider what an open source company really is. Purists beware: the definition of what constitutes an open source company itself is becoming a mashup.