Comments on the SDTimes article

Miguel de Icaza wrote up a good response to the SDTimes article in which both of us were quoted, and I thought it might serve to flesh out the discussion a bit more to chime in with my part in the piece.

First and foremost, Miguel notes:

David quotes Ted Neward (a speaker on the .NET and Java circuits, but not an open source guy by any stretch of the imagination).

Amen to that—I have never tried to promote myself as an open source guy, and certainly not somebody that can go toe-to-toe on open-source issues like Miguel can. David contacted me specifically to comment on some of Miguel's points, and that's what I tried to do.

Ted tried to refute my point about Java and innovation but seemed to have missed the point.

Again, I don't think I can argue with that. Your point becomes more clear in your blog entry, Miguel, and as you'll see in a second, I disagree with only part of the point, and perhaps it's a semantic discussion that isn't one you (or anybody else) wants to have, but seems important to note, at least in my mind. :-)

The article attributed this to Ted: "Microsoft has made an open-source CLI implementation codenamed 'Rotor' freely available, but it has had little or no uptake".

There is a very simple reason for that. Rotor was not open source and it was doomed to failure the moment it came out. When Microsoft released Rotor in 2002 or 2003 they had no idea what they were doing and basically botched the whole effort by using a proprietary license for Rotor.

And there we have it: "Rotor was not open source". This is the entire point on which the disagreement (or lack thereof) hinges.

Some time ago, on a panel, I mentioned that there are three kinds of common usage when people use the term "open source". (I'm not arguing the 'proper' definition here—I'm arguing the common lay usage, which may or may not actually be correct according to those who define such things.) Those three definitions are:

  1. Free. ("I didn't have to pay for it!")
  2. Source-available. ("I can build it!")
  3. Accepting community contributions, and as a result, forkable. ("I can submit patches!" or "I don't like the direction you're taking it, so I'm taking the source and forking it and going in a different direction!")

Rotor fit the definitions of the first 2, though #1 usually implies an ability to use it in a production environment, something the Shared Source license (the license applying to Rotor at the time of its release) didn't permit in any way shape or form.

And Miguel's exactly right—according to the #3 definition of the above, or the linked definition he cites, Rotor does not fit that. Period.

Alas, it is to the detriment of our industry that people don't use terms according to their actual definitions, but a looser, less precise, usage model. Not being an "open-source guy", I fall into the trap of using the looser definition, and that's what I was using when I read Miguel's point and made my counterpoint.

As to the rest of Miguel's point, that Microsoft "botched" the release of Rotor, I'm not sure that's the case—what I think was happening was a difference of intent versus interpretation of that intent. I don't want to put words in Miguel's mouth, so forgive me if I'm (again) not reading it right, but contrary to what Miguel seems to believe, Microsoft never really intended Rotor as an "open source" implementation in the sense that Mono was.

Instead, Microsoft intended Rotor to be an implementation that universities and research groups could use to hack on the CLR or build languages for the CLR, in an effort to promote .NET and its usage among researchers and universities. Based on the discussions I had with David Stutz during the Shared Source CLI Essentials writing, Microsoft never really thought that Rotor would be all that interesting as an open-source "platform", per se—hence the reason that the GC and JIT that appear in Rotor are "simplified" and "not all that interesting" (David's words, as best I can remember them). At the time, they felt that these (GC and JIT) would be areas that students and companies would want to research around those areas, so a production-ready implementation of either was really not necessary.

In other words, Microsoft saw Rotor as JikesRVM, not as Mono. And definitely not as OpenJDK.

Which gets us right back to Miguel's point, a spot-on analysis:

Had Microsoft been an open company in 2001 and had embraced diversity we would live in a different world. The awesome Mono team would probably be bigger, and the existing team members would have longer vacations.

The Microsoft of 2001 was categorically and absolutely afraid of the open-source community. In fact, I seem to recall David listing a litany of things he'd had to do to get Rotor pushed out the door, even with the license it had. Had David not been as high up in the organization as he was, we probably wouldn't have seen Rotor. And, I believe, we wouldn't see Microsoft being where they are now...

But for everyone that missed the point, luckily, Microsoft has new management, new employees that know open source, fresh new ideas, is becoming more open and is working actively on interoperability with third parties. They even launched the CodePlex Foundation.

... without it, because Rotor made it clear to the powers-that-be that even if they turn loose the "keys to the kingdom" (as the CLR was thought to be, in some quarters) out to the world, Microsoft doesn't go bankrupt. A steady yet slowly-emerging "new Microsoft" is coming, one which is figuring out how to interact with open source in ways that the "old Microsoft" could never consider. (Remember, this is not IBM, a company that makes more money on services than on software sales—this is a firm that makes its money principally from commercial software sales. Anybody who thinks they've got that part of the open source market figured out should probably run out and start a company, because that's a hell of a trick.)

And lest it seem like I'm harshing a bit too much on Microsoft, let's take one of Miguel's points and turn it over for a second:

But my point about the ecosystem goes beyond the JVM, it is about the Java ecosystem in general vs the .NET ecosystem. Java was able to capitalize on having implementations on Linux and Unix, which accounts for more than half the web today. The Apache Foundation is a big hub for Java-based development and it grew organically.

All of which was good for Java.... but not necessarily for Sun, who as most of you know, just recently got acquired by one of their former competitors. We can moan and groan and complain about the slow pace Microsoft has been taking to come to open source, particularly when compared to Sun's approach, but in the end, one of these companies is still in business and listed on the NYSE, and the other isn't.