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Monday, 13 July 2009 06:21

Microsoft Mono move means exactly nothing

When Britain was the superpower of the world, there was one tactic which its officials used, with great success, to manage its colonies - divide and rule.

Microsoft is adept at doing the same thing. At least it tries, and often succeeds.

That's exactly what it has done in the case of Mono, with its statement last week that it would be permitting developers to use C# and the common language infrastructure under its community promise.

The move is clever - it defuses one argument that has been going on for some time: is it okay to include applications like Tomboy and F-Spot by default in GNU/Linux installations?

People have now started to believe that there is no danger from any patent problems associated with Mono if one includes these applications and others too.

(This kind of fallacy could well have been helped along by clueless articles which lauded the Microsoft move as a landmark, adopting anything but a cautious approach - which is what is called for in cases like this.)

This, despite the fact that the Microsoft Community Promise has been found to be inadequate to offer sufficient guarantees to free software developers, such that they could use languages which owe their origins to Microsoft without fear of being hauled to court down the track.

All we have is a single blog post. Nothing further from the company as yet. If this is a carefully thought through move, then why isn't even the community promise page updated?

Even Microsoft's open specification promise has been found to be wanting when it comes to GPL-ed software. Not that this spec has anything to say about Mono - it is conspicuously missing. By contrast here is a promise that can be taken seriously.

For those looking for context here, Mono is an open source implementation of parts of Microsoft's .NET development environment. Debate over its use has been fuelled recently by the news that Debian plans to include it in the default install, that Ubuntu has no IP concerns about it and by FSF chief Richard Stallman's reaction to the Debian move.


But there are some other aspects of the whole Mono story which seem to be largely ignored.

One is the fact that Miguel de Icaza, a vice-president at Novell and the person who started the Mono project, announced on the same day as Microsoft, that he would now be starting work on splitting the Mono source code into portions covered by the standards submitted to ECMA and those outside.

It's telling that until now, the man who is supposed to be fully aware of no-go areas where Mono is concerned was blithely accepting promises from Microsoft and creating a potential time-bomb.

Else, why does the very person, who had been always assuring others that there was no danger in using Mono, now wake up to the fact that one needs to separate the source code for the ECMA-standardised areas and the rest? (This bit of information is neatly buried at the bottom of his post.)

His promises were thus worth nothing all these eight years. What are they worth now? Remember this is the man whose company, Ximian, was marketing GNOME - and using keywords associated with a rival, KDE, as Google adwords for its own ads! Integrity, anyone?

For a long time, people have tended to see De Icaza primarily as a free software developer - and not as an employee of Novell, the same company that tried to split the GNU/Linux community by signing a patent deal with Microsoft back in November 2006. Novell, incidentally, styles itself as a "mixed-source company."

Once one views De Icaza from the right perspective, then a lot of things fall into place. He is merely doing Novell's - and, by extension, Microsoft's - bidding.

I'm not sure how many people have read the tale of the camel and the tailor. I can't find it on the web, so here is a brief synopsis: a camel comes to a tailor in a tent, asks him to allow him inside because of the cold, and gradually worms his way in. He then kicks the tailor out. You. dear reader, would get the analogy.

To come back to Mono, once applications like Tomboy and F-Spot are installed by default in GNU/Linux distributions, is that going to be the end of the story - though even that is not safe?

Undoubtedly not. If Novell does not have funds to pay people to develop more and more Mono applications, then Microsoft will find a way to do so. And if there are good applications, the push for their inclusion will continue - unmindful of any risks they may pose.

Let's remember that De Icaza has gone on the public record stating that he believes .NET is the "natural upgrade" for GNOME. Here's a direct quote: "I'd like to see Gnome applications written in .NET in version 4.0 - no, version 3.0. But Gnome 4.0 should be based on .NET. A lot of people just see .NET as a fantastic upgrade for the development platform from Microsoft."

GNOME 3.0 is around the corner so he probably won't have time to realise his dream. What of version 4.0?

Not unrelated to this whole Mono debate may be the fact that some GNOME people have started a campaign to smear Stallman, to the extent of even releasing a private email exchange. But then is not new behaviour from people at the top of GNOME. Anyone who criticises Mono seems to come in for a rough time.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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