"Then there's the cost of the thing: are they trying to tap in to the supposed good will of us merry free software developers?" Suggesting that the promotion costs less than a hundred thousand dollars, if not more like forty thousand, Gordon says, "It's a very good deal for them in fact to raise their profile for that kind of money, isn't it?"
Although Gordon suggests that it is ironic that Microsoft should be the company that brings the local FOSS groups together, he adds that, all the same, "we've done very well without them. Microsoft really needs us more than we need them. Microsoft doesn't have much of an appearance on the collective radar screen of the free and open source software development community -- especially in web development. It's not very relevant." Most companies producing FOSS solutions, Gordon observes, keep only a single Windows workstation or Windows server for testing on Internet Explorer.
The trouble is, according to Gordon, is that despite such promotions, "Microsoft is not really part of the FOSS community. If we're doing things with people who understand the GNU General Public License, we can all work together. It's a fairly straightforward license, and you can rally an enormous amount of people around its ideals because they understand it. For this, we really don't understand what we're doing it for."
"Microsoft is trying to be this big monolithic presence that somehow has an influence on people who code," Gordon says. "So they want to make an impact. But I don't know how much of an impact they're going to make. They might find the mentality of people in Vancouver is different from what they would expect or hope for."
"If Microsoft really wants to prove its worth, it should release software under the GNU General Public License," Gordon suggests. Until then, "to be really cheeky, it would be like we're a group of feminists, but we're getting sponsorship from Larry Flynt [the pornography publisher]. Or we're vegetarians, but we're being sponsored by the Alberta Meat Packagers. They're really not open source."
The soul searching that is currently happening in Vancouver is just a local example of what is happening more and more often around the world as Microsoft professes a wish to engage the FOSS community more closely.
Can Microsoft's claim of a change of heart be trusted? Should the claim be seen as the latest in a series of devious tactics to undermine free software? Or is the divided message created by Microsoft's rejection of the GNU General Public License on the one hand and events like Make Web Not War on the other hand be taken as a sign of differences within Microsoft? Such questions have no easy answers.
Nor are the answers always clearer for events like Make Web Not War. Not only does the promotion have a slickness that many FOSS advocates may find distasteful, but the implication in the name that FOSS is made by aging hippies might be interpreted as a hint that Microsoft's attitude has not fundamentally changed.
More importantly, while Microsoft's employees sound sincere, the contents of last years promotion suggests that the apparently newfound interest in FOSS is limited. In the 2010 promotion in Montreal, eleven out of twenty speakers were Microsoft employees, and several of the others had long term business relationships with Microsoft. Few were well-known within the FOSS community
Similarly, out of fourteen presentations, from their descriptions, at least nine are about integrating FOSS with Microsoft products -- and others might be as well, if you could view their contents.
In other words, the promotion lacks the interest in FOSS in the abstract that is usually required as proof of a genuine interest in the community.
Nobody, of course, believes for a moment that Red Hat or Novell are unconcerned about how they can profit from FOSS, but a concern for FOSS that does not extend beyond a company's immediate interests is generally taken as proof of a predatory interest only. So far, little in Make Web Not War except the rhetoric suggests an interest in FOSS for its own sake.
At this point, the only thing you can say for sure about Make Web Not War is that it proves that we are well into a new era of relations between Microsoft and FOSS. But whether that new era is one of co-operation or more devious antagonism -- or perhaps a mixture of both -- is still not objectively obvious.