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Why Microsoft Is Going Open Source

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No one would have believed me if I had said five years ago that Microsoft would have a page on its Web site called “Open Source at Microsoft” with the following remarkably sane and reasonable statement on the subject:

Microsoft is focused on helping customers and partners succeed in a heterogeneous technology world. This starts with participating and contributing to a broad range of choices for developing and deploying software, including open source approaches and applications. From thousands of lines of code and scripts on MSDN and TechNet, to open source applications like IronPython, ASP.NET AJAX, SharePoint Learning Kit, and WiX on CodePlex and SourceForge, Microsoft is continually growing the number of products released with open source access.

That's right: Microsoft has released not one but several pieces of code as open source. Moreover, it's submitting some of its home-grown licences to the Open Source Initiative for approval. So what is going on here?

In part, I think that Microsoft's own analysis of its motives is true: we do live in a heterogeneous world of technology, and the creation of Microsoft's open source pages and projects reflects a long-overdue reflection of this fact. It is also testimony to the continuing success of free software. Initially Microsoft obviously hoped it would prove a fashion that would eventually fade way, but as its own FAQ states:

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The recent news stories about Microsoft and Open Source represent, at face value, a very odd turn of events for Microsoft as only a couple of years ago they dismissed open source as anti competitive and even anti American. This change of heart seems to represent more a change in the perception of open source as a commercial proposition than a willingness of Microsoft to embrace the open source community.

Microsoft Would Love to Hate Open Source

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