The past decade has been good to the open source world. Companies like IBM (NYSE: IBM), Sun, and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) have released significant amounts of software code to the open source community. The more open source and free software that is out there, the easier it becomes to develop further code, creating a positive, progressive cycle. Other open source companies like Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) managed to prove their business model is viable, consistently growing revenues year-over-year. And end-users worldwide have been discovering that software can be free as in freedom.

Open source pop quiz
With all that in mind, I'd like you to guess which company uttered the following quote last Monday: "We love open source."

Your choices:

  1. Google
  2. Red Hat
  3. Sun parent Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL)
  4. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)

Can you guess? I'll give you a hint. It's not that open source darling with the pretty hat.

That's some tough love
The surprising answer is Microsoft.

Last week's NetworkWorld article interviewing Jean Paoli of Microsoft was quick to remind its readers of the Steve Ballmer comment in 2001, in which Ballmer called Linux a "cancer." But "that was really a long time ago," said Paoli, citing it as "a mistake."

Responses to the article have ranged from the bemused through the outraged. Aside from the cancer quote, which is fairly old, Microsoft has repeatedly shown itself to be unfriendly and even hostile to the open source and free software communities.

In 2007, Ballmer claimed that Linux and "other open source software" infringes upon 235 Microsoft patents, but refused to specify which ones. And what about the GPL license, the one that guarantees your free software? Bill Gates, in referring to the license, stated that "nobody can ever improve the software," an assertion shown time and again to be patently false (no pun intended).

But about a year ago, Mr. Softy surprised the community by releasing some code into drivers for the Linux kernel, under the previously reviled GPL license. Granted, the move was far from altruistic -- the drivers were part of a virtualization strategy that allows Windows servers and Linux servers to coexist in the cloud, giving Microsoft access to the action. Nevertheless, it was a major step forward in the historic Windows-Linux battle.

The Oracle of ... lawsuits
Mr. Softy is trying to step out of the bad guy role at a time when Oracle is firmly stepping into it.

Oracle recently filed a suit against Google for infringement of its Java patents in the open source Android operating system. The move shocked the open source community, but not Java's creator, James Gosling. In his blog, Gosling basically told how Oracle was excited about the prospect of suing Google while shopping for Sun.

Java was released under the GPL license back in 2006, but the mobile version is under different terms, and it's unclear if Google stepped over the line in some way. Big G says no, calling Oracle's suit an attack on "both Google and the open-source Java community."

But Google may have just drunk the most expensive cup of Java in history. Oracle is demanding seizure of all Android products and ads, and triple damages to boot because Google's alleged infringement was done "knowingly [and] willingly."

Winner takes all?
So who's on the user's side? And who wins from these battles? Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) proprietary iPhone will surely get a boost if Google's Android will run into trouble. Oracle might make a killing out of the lawsuit, but it certainly loses the good faith of the free software and open source communities, which were already worried about Java's future. Even Google is straddling the fence, giving with one hand and taking with the other.

And Microsoft? It gets to clean up its act, at least comparatively.

Well, everything is relative.

Do you believe Mr. Softy has turned his coat? Who do you think is the bad guy in the software industry? And who is the bad investment? Let us know what you think in the comment box.