About 20 years ago I first heard of Richard Stallman and the GNU Movement. At the time Richard and his supporters were promoting free software with an almost evangelical Zeal. They were also trying to develop a free clone of the Unix operating system. I thought they were interesting but nuts. I actually went to the trouble of digging up and reading the original GNU manifesto a major premise of which seemed to be that programmers enjoy writing software so much that they shouldn't expect to be paid for letting other people use it. To be honest I couldn't see how it would work and I figured that the nerdy name they chose (Gnu stands for "Gnu's Not Unix" a kind of geek in-joke) was proof if proof be needed that they would never amount to anything.
Well in some ways I was right. Here we are twenty years later and the GNU movement has still not managed to put together a complete operating system. The wildly successful free operating system Linux borrows many components from GNU but uses a non GNU kernel developed by Linus Torvalds. If you step back and look at the bigger picture though I was wrong to dismiss Richard Stallman and his evangelism for free software, very wrong. Today the world is awash with free software. Some of it provided under the rigidly anti commercial tenets of the GNU public licence, some of it under similar but less restrictive Open Source licences and some of it under closed source licenses. In fact some of the most popular free software is producesd and distributed by commercial companies who hope to make a profit on the back of free software through advertising, promotion or sales of related services.
I adore free software. It has allowed me to do many things with my computer that I could not otherwise afford. Microsoft is not such a big fan it seems. Fortune magazine has an excellent article (available from CNN) suggetsing that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is about to wage war on free software using a library of Microsoft patents as legal ammunition.
It is plausible I guess that some free software applications do contain algorithms that have been patented by Microsoft but I have to wonder what Microsft intend to do about it. The Behemoth of Redmond is hardly going to go sue an army of bedroom programmers for a slice of profits that by definition don't exist. The free software movement has shown itself to be extremely robust and flexible. Where patent infringments are detected the free software community can probably rewrite applications to avoid infringement. If MS ever did manage to shut down one of the truly useful free software tools then they open themselves up to a world of bad publicity and more talk of abusing their market position.
This is sabre rattling and I suspect it is Sabre rattling directed not at bedroom programmers but at corporate IT departments who may be tempted to stray from Microsoft offerings to try some of the free alternatives. By creating an aura of illegality over free software Microsoft may be able to dissuade corporates from putting their toes in the water.
If free software wasn't any good there wouldn't be a problem but a lot of free software is as good as if not better than commercial products. I suspect that the timing of this Microsoft initiative has something to do with the lacklustre launches of Microsoft Vista and Office 2007. The luke warm reception of both of these products coupled with backward compatibility issues has opened a window for customers to experiment with alternatives. Among the most frightening alternatives from a Redmond perspective are the new free online Office service being offered by Google and others .
EDIT: There is a lot of comment about this over on slashdot much of which focusses on the role of IBM. IBM have positioned themselves as champions of Open Source software so if Microsoft pursue this they are likely to come into direct conflict with Big Blue. We live in interesting times methinks.