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Free Software Foundation Waves Developers Off Mono & C#

It suggests that Microsoft has a secret cache of patents tucked away to attack the unwary

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) doesn’t like Microsoft, doesn’t like software patents, it especially doesn’t like Microsoft’s patents, and it doesn’t trust the two of them in the same room together.

It’s convinced that Microsoft is eventually going to sue any open source developer who uses Mono, the Novell-supported open source version of Microsoft’s .NET widgetry, or who writes open source programs in C#, the Microsoft development language.

It’s warning off developers now because Microsoft has added both C# and Mono – or rather the ECMA 334 and 335 standards that embrace them – to its two-year-old irrevocable, legally binding Community Promise not to sue. (See www.microsoft.com/interop/cp/default.mspx.)

The Free Software Foundation is sure Microsoft means to gull open source developers into a false sense of security and then snap the lid down on their typing fingers.

It suggests that Microsoft has a secret cache of patents tucked away to attack the unwary.

“Using patents to divide and conquer the free software community is a fundamental part of [Microsoft’s] corporate strategy,” it says.

“Because of that, C# represents a unique threat to us. The language was developed inside Microsoft, so it’s likely they have many patents to cover different aspects of its implementation. That would make free software implementations of C#, like Mono, an easy target for attack.”

FSF president and resident paranoid Richard Stallman is alarmed – or maybe it’s that he feels his grip slackening – because of “Debian’s decision to include Mono in its principal way of installing Gnome, for the sake of Tomboy which is an application written in C#.”

He claims it “leads the community in a risky direction. It is dangerous to depend on C#, so we need to discourage its use.”

“The problem,” he says, “is not unique to Mono; any free implementation of C# would raise the same issue. The danger is that Microsoft is probably planning to force all free C# implementations underground some day using software patents. (See http://swpat.org and http://progfree.org.) This is a serious danger, and only fools would ignore it until the day it actually happens. We need to take precautions now to protect ourselves from this future danger.”

According to the FSF, whose goal is to get Microsoft to foreswear its IP completely, Microsoft’s promise, is “full of loopholes.”

See, Microsoft’s promise only covers implementations “that are compliant with all of the required parts of the mandatory provisions” of a covered specification. So FSF reasons that because Mono and applications like Tomboy use libraries that aren’t required by the ECMA 334 and 335 specifications they’re swimming in crocodile-infested waters with their pants around their knees.

“And just to be clear,” it says, “we’re not talking about Windows-specific libraries like ASP.NET and Windows Forms. Instead, we’re talking about libraries under the System namespace that provide common functionality programmers expect in modern programming languages: binary object serialization, regular expressions, XPath and XSLT, and more.

“Because these libraries are not defined in the ECMA specifications, they are not protected in any way by Microsoft’s Community Promise. If this were the only problem with the promise, it might be safe to use applications that avoid these libraries, and stick to what’s in the standard. But even the code that’s covered by the promise isn’t completely safe.

“The Community Promise only extends to claims in Microsoft patents that are necessary to implement the covered specifications. Judging just by the size of its patent portfolio, it’s likely that Microsoft holds patents which a complete standard implementation probably infringes even if it’s not strictly necessary – maybe the patent covers a straightforward speed optimization, or some common way of performing some task. The Community Promise doesn’t say anything about these patents, and so Microsoft can still use them to threaten standard implementations.

“The Community Promise does nothing to change any of this. Microsoft had an opportunity to take action and demonstrate that it meant us no harm with C#. Instead, they took meaningless half-measures that leave them with plenty of opportunities to hurt us.”

ECMA 334 describes C# and ECMA 335 defines the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) in which applications written in multiple high-level languages can be executed in different system environments without having to rewrite those applications to take into consideration the unique characteristics of those environments.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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Most Recent Comments
FirstRider 07/26/09 07:20:17 PM EDT

Re: FSF's fears of Patent Booby Traps:

“And just to be clear,” it says, “we’re not talking about Windows-specific libraries like ASP.NET and Windows Forms. Instead, we’re talking about libraries under the System namespace that provide common functionality programmers expect in modern programming languages: binary object serialization, regular expressions, XPath and XSLT, and more."

The reason why these are not part of ECMA 334 and ECMA 335 is because they are common to all modern languages. If Microsoft could sue for implementing those in C# and CLI technologies, it could also sue for the same implementations in Java, etc. Any secret Patents Microsoft has on XPath or XSLT or whatever other common thing they have out there, these would pose the same threat to any other language technology you used, like Java, etc.

What Microsoft has done is release from its patent protection CLI and its most popular language C#. The intention here is not to lure people into lawsuits, which would have many legal problems. No, Microsoft's strategy seems to be to make C# and CLI as popular as Java or even more so, and this in turn would help increase the popularity of .NET on the Microsoft platform and lure in more developers. More developers means more people buying Microsoft products, more universities using C# for Programming 101 instead of Java, and ultimately, more people buying Windows 7.

So their goal is to sell to you, not to sue you. And I think it is a strategic goal. It makes sense. Waging lawsuits on usage of XSLT or Xpath against opensource developers would probably not provide a significant return on investment, but getting more people enthused with their .NET technologies and building with their tools would.

A few years ago they started releasing Express versions of their Visual Studio, which is totally free for developing free and commercial applications, without limit. You can do anything with them. You can make Silverlight applications, XNA games for XBOX 360, and any Windows Desktop application you can think of. They did this not to lure developers into any traps. All their strategy is to make more .NET developers, and increase the popularity of their technologies. By having hobbyists and students and low budget people using their technologies, there is a future payoff in terms of more applications being made with their technologies, and ultimately, more buyers of Windows 7 and Microsoft computers.

So the Microsoft strategy seems to be to increase popularity of .NET, and eventually eclipse Java, and this would lead to more sales of Windows 7 and maybe its newer post Windows operating system, called Midori, which may be written in C#. Midori will be an Operating System entirely written in managed code. Similar attempts were made with the Java technology a few years ago.

Microsoft is sort of like the USSR under Gorbachev. And the release of CLI and C# is like the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the end of the Warsaw Pact.

Well, maybe it is not that dramatic, but entities do not always remain evil. They can change.

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