Miguel de Icaza and his ostracization from FOSS

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 24, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Just before I settled down to write today, I read that Microsoft had acquired Xamarin, the company founded by  Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman. To many, the news is the logical end to a story that has been unfolding for years now, and if the first cries of, "Traitors!" have not appeared on blogs and articles, then I expect they are only a matter of time.

However, you won't hear my voice among those screaming accusations. I'm too busy thinking about how events might have been otherwise, and how people in the free software and open source (FOSS) community are as responsible for this turn of events as de Icaza and Friedman themselves, having left them with no place to stand.

As you may know, de Icaza first came into prominence as one of the founders of GNOME. At one point, he was such a mainstream FOSS contributor that in 1999, the Free Software Foundation recognized his contributions with the Award for the Advancement of Free Software.

However, in 2004, the situation changed. De Icaza and Friedman announced that their company Ximian was developing Mono, a free-licensed implementation of Microsoft's .NET. Widely seen as Microsoft's trojan horse, Mono, many feared, might some day be used to destroy free software through patent claims.

Mono soon became the most hated application in the history of free software. At least one site owner made his reputation by writing denunciation after denunciation of Mono. One day in 2007, I counted 97 anti-Mono blogs or articles published in a single day on different sites. Naturally, the development by the same team of Moonlight, a free-licensed version version of Microsoft's Silverlight, received an equally hostile reception. When Ximian was bought by Novell, Novell became a target of criticism as well.

By 2009, Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, was denouncing de Icaza as a "traitor to free software". Friedman, for some reason, escaped the censure. However, by the time Ximian was spun off from Novell in 2011, the situation was old news, and many of the attacks had died down.

No doubt it helped that Silverlight -- and, by extension, Moonlight -- failed to achieve popularity, and that Microsoft has moved steadily away from it ever since. Similarly, while Mono still exists in most distributions, it, too, has become less widespread than predicted, and its main opponent seems to have been distracted by personal considerations from continuing the attacks.

Still, the damage has been done. At first, de Izaca had responded calmly to the attacks, suggesting that .NET would become a major development tool, and that lack of it would handicap FOSS -- a position that was defensible, although controversial. However, as the Mono development team moved from Novell to Xamarin, his reaction became more hostile and started sounding more pro-Microsoft and anti-FOSS. He favored, for example, Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) standard over FOSS' Open Document Format and, in 2012, compared  the free desktop unfavorably to OS X's, criticizing FOSS for its programmer-centered culture, its poor backward compatibility and the chaos caused by so many distributions.

In recent years, de Icaza has apparently tired of the controversy, refusing to discuss it and preferring to focus on Xamarin's success, and finding only limited interest. When today's announcement was made, de Icaza posted the news to Facebook with the comment, "We are delighted to join you guys!" Despite Microsoft's growing efforts to accomodate FOSS in some ways, I have no doubt that his reaction will be widely taken as final proof (if any was needed) of his defection to The Enemy.

Cutting your nose off
I have never met de Icaza, but I have talked to him on the phone a few times, and found him both pleasant and intelligent, even though he must have known I had reservations about the technologies he was developing. Yet he seemed a man with whom you could politely agree to disagree.

Perhaps I am as naive as I thought he was in some of his opinions about Microsoft, but my conversations with de Icaza leave me thinking, "How could FOSS have driven away such a potentially valuable contributor?"

I suspect that the widespread hatred of Microsoft, which still at times spills over into paranoia, made him guilty by association as much as anything. Although I did not agree with his solutions, de Icaza was only stating the obvious when he said that FOSS needed to support new technologies to remain competitive. Even his comments about the FOSS desktop, although tinged with bitterness, are at least partly true, and offer a possibly valuable corrective.

Perhaps Jeremy Allison and the Samba developers could have come in for similar criticism as de Icaza and the Mono team. After all, Samba is all about working with Microsoft technologies. However, Samba's developers have alway kept a low profile, concentrating on technology issues rather than political ones.

By contrast, de Icaza has never been shy about offering his opinions. If he has, indeed, shifted his support from FOSS to Microsoft, who can blame him? FOSS never tried to find a middle ground with him. Instead, he was told to give up his life's work -- something no one of any ability or insight is likely to agree to.

Could he have been more discrete, more accommodating? Definitely. Yet, perhaps in the situation, there was no way to come to any sort of agreement with the rest of FOSS.

Still, the fact remains that FOSS' prejudices, however justifiable, drove away a once valuable contributor because of the way they were expressed. The loss is unlikely to have hurt de Icaza, who with the success and sale of Xamarin, is probably well off, if still annoyed. But the loss to FOSS is obvious. There are never enough programmers to do everything in FOSS, and ones like de Icaza with project management skill and the ability to discuss strategy realistically are even rarer than an ordinary coder.

I don't know -- perhaps the split was inevitable, or became so at a certain point. But it was stupid and wasteful, and I can't help wishing that everything had turned out otherwise.

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