Monday, June 14, 2010

IBM discredits the open standards lobby

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I saw hypocrisy of the worst kind: two IBM vice presidents preaching open standards values to EU decision-makers and FOSS community members instead of practicing them at their own company, which would really need that kind of lecturing.

IBM advocates openness and interoperability but actually refuses to be interoperable with open source only to keep customers locked in.

The first thing those guys should learn is that interoperability, by definition, always goes both ways. This isn't only a problem for them and the customers they're milking and the companies they don't allow to provide interoperability. As the EU is finalizing and will later be implementing its European Interoperability Strategy and Framework, IBM's open hypocrisy harms the cause of open standards.

There's increasing awareness for the fact that IBM, the biggest and most vocal backer of open standards lobby organizations in Europe (OpenForum Europe and ECIS), does in its core business the exact opposite of what it demands from others in their core business.

Something like that can work for a while. But once the decision-makers find out, being exposed as a hypocrite is a surefire way to lose in politics.

Neelie Kroes (European Commission Vice President): we must practice what we preach

European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, formerly known for her relentless pursuit of the Microsoft and Intel competition cases and now the Digital Agenda commissioner, addressed the OpenForum Europe conference on Thursday and said:
I am still a big fan of open standards. I believe in openness, and I believe in practicing what one preaches.
Google's chief legal officer David Drummond and Oracle vice president Don Deutsch gave examples of how their companies contribute to the cause. In light of what they said and what Mrs. Kroes had said before, I put a question to both of them: Aren't you concerned that IBM's use of patents against open source (in order to prevent interoperability) creates a credibility problem for the lobbying effort in which IBM is your partner?

Google's chief lawyer: you won't see us use patents against open source

David Drummond pointed out that I can't hold them responsible for what IBM is doing, and I didn't mean to do that. But through OpenForum Europe they walk side by side with IBM on this particular issue. They meet politicians together. They publish joint position papers. So a credibility issue for one of them in this particular context jeopardizes their collective effort.

After clarifying that he didn't want to comment on a particular company, David Drummond said something great:
"Anyone using patents against open source is a bad idea -- you won't see us do it."
This is obviously not a formal and detailed promise of non-assertion. But for a quick statement on a conference panel, and coming from Google's chief legal officer (the lawyer who advised Google's founders back in 1998 when they started), this was clear enough. We need more such commitments from large companies. And we need them to adhere to that principle.

IBM vice presidents afraid to talk

Later that day, IBM's vice president of technology and strategy, Michael Karasick, gave a presentation on openness in the cloud (here's the conference program).

There's the Simple Cloud API supported by (among others) IBM and Microsoft, and he talked about that initiative as well as other examples of open interfaces for cloud computing. It was designed to be a pitch to EU decision-makers with a special focus on e-government. He defined the cloud as a different form of "consumption" and talked about virtualization and "fundamental platforms."

So I asked him why his list of open interfaces doesn't include the mainframe instruction set, given that governments around the globe use mainframes for very critical purposes. Otherwise, IBM would transform its current mainframe hardware monopoly into a new cloud-related monopoly.

He simply didn't want to answer. Instead, he chose to talk about an earlier question that had already been answered by another panelist. How weak.

Silence at LinuxTag

The following day I was in Berlin at LinuxTag, where I gave a talk on EU processes relevant to Linux (and Free and Open Source Software in general). Before my own session I went to a presentation by IBM vice president and standards advocate Rob Weir on "the mutual advantage of open source and open standards".

It was bewildering to see him list (on page 8 of his presentation) the four freedoms from the Free Software definition. Software can be "open" even with patents, but it certainly can't be free as in free speech (and hardly free as in free beer) with them. If IBM truly believed in those freedoms, it would have to oppose software patents instead of lobbying for them, piling up more of them than anybody else and using them in really bad ways.

Rob Weir talked a lot about the Open Document Format and warned against the dangers of a standard being controlled by a single owner. I told him that he was probably preaching to the choir at LinuxTag when it comes to open standards, but I asked whether it wouldn't be a good idea for him to do the same kind of advocacy inside his own company, given the way IBM fights against open source and interoperability only to preserve its mainframe monopoly. Like his colleague the day before, he didn't want to answer the question.

Still at LinuxTag, one of IBM's leading mainframe Linux experts, Karl-Heinz Strassemeyer, was asked by RadioTux (a web radio program on Linux and open source topics) about the Hercules open source mainframe emulator, and he said he doesn't comment on "legal affairs".

Instead of muzzling its employees, IBM should practice what it preaches. They won't do that just because I say so. But they should heed what the European Commission says.

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