Is Steve Ballmer Lying To You?

Steve Ballmer is the CEO of Microsoft. He's the number two guy on the ladder, below Bill Gates. When he speaks about computing and technology, he speaks for the company. (Companies don't generally pay someone a six figure salary with seven figure bonuses and bundles of stock if he's constantly shooting off his mouth in public.)

With that in mind, it seems fitting that any public remark from Ballmer on the topics above is fair game for analysis. Certainly a man in his position has access to scores of lawyers and researchers and analysts and consultants. One would expect that he has high-quality information, and spends a great deal of time sifting through reports before coming to conclusions.

We'll return to that thought shortly.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times dated 1 June, 2001, Ballmer promoted the company's new release of its Office software package, Office XP. That's not surprising. What is surprising is his remarks when questioned about Linux and the Open Source movement.

If you're not already aware of Linux, it's very simple. A computer, by itself, is a jumble of parts and pieces that don't really know how to communicate with each other. If you've ever tried to make a robot by stapling a bucket on a box and attaching vacuum cleaner hoses for arms and wheels for legs, you'll know it didn't work. In the same way, a computer without some sort of operating system is useless.

In this case, Linux is the operating system. It understands how to communicate with all of the parts and pieces of the computer, and is the basis for doing most anything worth doing. Other operating systems you may have encountered are Windows, Mac, DOS, and other Unix variants besides Linux or BSD.

There's an important difference between Linux and many other operating systems, and that's the idea of Open Source. At its heart, that means that there are no restrictions on its use, and that you are free to modify it with few restrictions. For example, you can purchase an operating system based on Linux for $50 or more from any of several companies, you can often download it for free from most of the companies, or you can put it together yourself for free. The important thing here isn't the price, but the fact that you have several options.

We'll return to the idea of Open Source shortly.

Towards the end of the interview, the Sun-Times asks Ballmer what he thinks about Linux and Open Source. Specifically, are Linux and the Open Source movement threats to Microsoft? In many of the previous questions, the interviewer asks Ballmer to speak for Microsoft. For example, on a question about Microsoft's quest for new markets, he asks, "[is] there any area you don't see yourself entering?" (emphasis preserved). Given this context, it's fair to assume that Ballmer is speaking for Microsoft, not just himself.

What Did He Learn From All His Research?

Enough preface. Let's see exactly what Ballmer said and analyze his veracity. How does Ballmer (and by extension, Microsoft -- at least in its official policy) view Linux and Open Source software?

"Open source is not available to commercial companies. The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source."

If we take what Ballmer said at face value, we see that he said several things:

  1. There is one license for open source software.
  2. Commercial companies are not allowed to use open source software.
  3. If a company did use open source software, it would be required to do something.
  4. Using open source software requires that all of the company's software be made open source.
Heavy stuff! Unfortunately for Ballmer, none of those four points are true.

Open Source Licenses

The Open Source Initiative is a group formed to promote Open Source. In fact, the group itself came up with the term 'Open Source' before it officially came together. This is the first place to discover exactly what the term means.

According to the Open Source Definition, there are nine points a license must meet to fall under the Open Source category. OSI currently recognizes 21 approved licences. So much for Ballmer's implicit first point.

Looking again at the Definition, points 5 and 6 prohibit an Open Source license from discriminating against the usage of software by any person, group, or field of endeavor. For example, a license that said, "This software can be used freely by anyone except the government of China or in the normal business of a Fortune 500 company" would not be an approved Open Source license.

Simply put, no approved Open Source license restricts the usage of software made available under the license. That directly contradicts Ballmer's second point above. Indeed, the rationale behind point six expresses the desire that open source projects find commercial usage!

Now it's entirely possible that Ballmer was speaking off the cuff, and confused Open Source as a whole with one specific software license which fits under the Open Source definition. The Linux kernel (and much of the software in the operating system generally called 'Linux' or 'GNU/Linux') is available under the GPL, devised by the Free Software Foundation.

Remember that the GPL is on the list of Open Source Approved licenses. Ballmer's first two claims are untrue, when discussing the GPL. What does the GPL say, and what does it require?

What the GPL Says

The premise of the Free Software Foundation is that software should be free. As mentioned earlier, the important thing is not the price. The important thing is freedom. Users should be allowed to use the software with no restrictions. Programmers should be allowed to modify the software to meet their needs. Try doing that with Microsoft code sometime. If they catch you, please don't think I meant that as a serious suggestion.

There is one twist in the GPL, though. If you modify a program you received under the GPL and give the modified program to someone else, you must make your changes available to the second person. For an example, let's say that a computer program is like a recipe. If I write a recipe and give it to you under the terms of the GPL, you have several options. You can follow the recipe to the letter. You can modify the recipe. But if you give the food to another person, you must also make the recipe available to that person. That includes any modifications you have made.

The point of the GPL is to make software available to users and programmers with as few restrictions as possible. The only restriction is that you cannot make the program less free than when you received it. If you modify it, your modifications must be made available under the GPL as well.

What Ballmer Might Have Meant

It's possible Ballmer might have meant that software under the GPL cannot be used by commercial companies. It's possible that he meant that a commercial company using GPLd software would be required to do something. It's possible that he meant that a commercial company that uses software under the GPL would be required to provide all of its software under the GPL.

The problem is, none of those statements are true either.

Again, to be an Open Source Approved license, the GPL cannot restrict its usage. It does not. Any commercial company can use software made available under the GPL. In fact, any commercial company can use GPLd software without having to do anything else! If a business puts together a computer and sets up a GNU/Linux distribution on it for the operating system, that is allowed -- and even recommended.

Where Ballmer Might Be Confused

Remember the twist to the GPL? It covers modifications and distribution. That's important to the second man on the totem pole of a large company that makes its money by selling software. That counts as distribution. Everything hinges on Ballmer's fourth implicit point.

Looking again to the Open Source Definition, point nine says that any approved license cannot affect or infect other software distributed with it. That means, if Microsoft were to distribute one piece of software available under the GPL or the Artistic or the BSD license, it could do so without having to change the license of the other pieces of software on the CD or web site or DVD or whatever distribution medium is used.

As a matter of fact, Microsoft does just this. Examining the ftp.exe program distributed with Windows 95 reveals a curious phrase embedded within the software:

Copyright (c) 1983 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
What's interesting about this is that this phrase must be included in all software made available under the BSD license. Even better, the BSD license is on the list of approved Open Source Licences. Microsoft has not only used Open Source code, but distributed it!

Of course, this is specifically allowed under the BSD license. It is legal for Microsoft to do this. There are several options for Steve Ballmer here. He might be unaware of this. He might be lying. He might be confused about what Open Source means. He might think the GPL is the only Open Source license.

Even better, though, Microsoft has distributed the Perl programming language with the Windows NT Resource Kit. Perl is available under the GPL and the Artistic licenses -- again, both on the list of Open Source approved licenses. Remembering that there are no usage restrictions, and that the only restrictions on software made available under the GPL govern distribution, is this legal? You bet! Microsoft can do this without releasing all of its source code to the public for free. Microsoft can even do this without releasing any of its other source code for free.

Microsoft and the GPL

So what's the problem for Microsoft? Why would the GPL give Ballmer fits?

Again, it's very simple. If I wrote software and made it available under the GPL, Microsoft could use it. Microsoft could distribute it, provided they also made the source code available. Microsoft could modify it.

If Microsoft were to modify it and to distribute it, Microsoft would have to make their modifications available under the GPL. In effect, because I've given away my software, if they changed it and gave (or sold!) it to other people, they would have to make their changes available as source code as well. In recipe terms, if they baked a cake from my recipe, they'd have to make the recipe available to anyone who got a slice of cake. If they changed my recipe slightly, they'd have to make their modified recipe available to anyone who got a slice of cake.

They could charge for the program. That's no problem. They could modify it and never distribute it. That's no problem. But if they modify it and distribute it to other people, they cannot keep their changes secret.

The thing is, I hold a copyright on the software I write. Microsoft holds a copyright on the software they write. You hold the copyright on software you write. The copyright holder gets to choose the terms under which the software is distributed.

If Microsoft takes my code and uses part of it in one of their products, they must respect my copyright. If my code falls under the GPL, they have to respect that, and they'll have to follow the terms of the GPL for that piece of their software. The rest of their software is safe, as long as they have not used code copyrighted by anyone else.

It's really very simple. Steve Ballmer and I both know that if I managed to get my hands on Microsoft's source code and used it in my software, and if Microsoft managed to find out, the full force of their legal fury would come down on me swiftly and mercilessly. The same goes for you.

So Is Steve Ballmer Lying?

What's the point then? If Microsoft itself has used (and is presumably still using) Open Source software in its products -- and distributing it -- why would the CEO lie about Open Source in public?

There are several options. First, he misspoke or has been misquoted. In this case, I look forward to him clarifying his remarks. Second, he's ignorant. In this case, he needs to read the Open Source Definition and talk to a lawyer. I'm sure there is at least one brilliant legal mind available within the walls of Redmond.

The last option is that he's lying on purpose. Think about it. Shouldn't the CEO of a large software company be able to spend a couple of hours doing research into potential competitors? If you or I can understand Open Source licences and the basics of the GPL in a couple of hours, why wouldn't he?

If Steve Ballmer is ignorant or lying, when speaking about Microsoft, what does that say about the company? Perhaps Microsoft doesn't have your best interests in mind. What kind of freedom do you have when dealing with a company like this?

Perhaps we'd all be better off to pay less attention to what this man says and find an alternative to his company's software.

version 1.0
copyright 02 June 2001, chromatic

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