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If you've ever used Microsoft Access or Excel, you have likely used a product that Mike Gunderloy had a hand in developing. The irony is that Gunderloy himself doesn't use those products anymore. He's given up Microsoft for open source -- and he's not going back.
Gunderloy, an Evansville, Ind.-based freelance developer for the past quarter century, goes way back with Microsoft. "I was never a full-time employee, but have several times been a contractor with a badge and [Redmond] campus access," he says.
His contracting work -- on the order of half a million dollars, Gunderloy estimates -- led to a substantial amount of code contributed to the Access and Excel versions of Microsoft Office 97 and 2000. He's also worked on other, more obscure parts of the Microsoft software empire, including SQL Server, C#, and ASP.Net.
It was good work that paid well. But over the last several years, changes crept in that began to bother Gunderloy. "I saw Office 2007 really, really early -- alpha code. I gave feedback on parts of the code I was less than satisfied with. It was pretty clear my feedback and that of others was pretty much ignored. That was different from [my experiences with] Office 97, 2000, and 2003. It seems the Office team felt they didn't need any outside" opinions, Gunderloy recalls.
But those annoyances were merely a precursor to what was to come. The beginning of the end for the developer was when Microsoft went patent berserk. "What finally pushed me over the edge to 'I'm getting out' was when Microsoft started to assert non-intellectual property rights over the its Ribbon interface, making that level of sweeping intellectual property claims. Microsoft went from not patenting much to patenting everything," Gunderloy says.
Microsoft essentially tried to patent the new Ribbon interface that appeared on Office 2007 products. The Ribbon is a series of controls for various functions of Office programs. Redmond, Gunderloy says, "basically told any control vendor that wanted to make a control that the Ribbon was Microsoft property and they had to license it from Microsoft. They had to acknowledge that Microsoft owns that piece of the user interface. I said to myself, that's nuts. You may have copyright rights in code, but the arrangement of controls in the user interface is not something that's intellectual property."
If that happened, Gunderloy reasoned, it could become impossible for a developer to write any code that didn't tread on some vendor's patent somewhere. "It was the sweeping land grab by Microsoft that pissed me off."
Add to that Microsoft's infamous May 2007 claim that Linux and other open source software infringed on 235 Microsoft patents, and Gunderloy had seen enough. He broke with Microsoft and started looking around for new languages to learn. He knew he wanted to keep in the Web development realm, so he checked out open source languages like the Python-based Django and Ruby on Rails. He settled on RoR because he saw more opportunity to get paid to develop on that platform.
Gunderloy's disgust at Microsoft spilled into areas beyond the development platform; his work environment, he says, is now "100% Microsoft-free." He bought a Mac, which he says is more reliable than his Windows boxes. He runs both OpenOffice.org and NeoOffice, and uses iWork a lot.
Gunderloy has been using RoR since late 2006. He says the biggest difference between ASP.Net and RoR is that "now, I'm a whole lot closer to the code. With the Microsoft tool chain, it was about the IDE (integrated development environment), and visual drag-and-drop. I've gone back to the way I used to develop 10 years ago, with text editors. Now I'm just writing code instead of moving stuff around. It's easier to look at the code and know what's going on."
The drawback, he says, is that it's harder to develop fancy interfaces. On the whole, though, Gunderloy sees more advantage to the open source way of doing things. "Free is a pretty powerful argument. With ASP, to build a database, you had to consider what it would cost to build a fully licensed SQL Server. [RoR development is] much cheaper. The other thing is if you look at the ferment going on in Web development, an awful lot of the most visible properties are being built on Rails or Django or plain old PHP."
This trend away from Microsoft, according to Gunderloy, is likely to continue. "I don't think we've seen the high-water mark of Microsoft being replaced yet. If you look at the [open source development] numbers, Firefox, the [Python-based] Google application engine, all those things are trending away from Microsoft."
The switch has cost Gunderloy money. "I ended up cutting my hourly rate for development. I could command a higher rate [for Microsoft-related development], as someone who'd worked with Microsoft for as long as I had. The levels of compensation in the Rails development community will not reach the highest levels in Microsoft community."
Still, he's not complaining, and he believes the tradeoff is more than worth it. By bucking Microsoft for open source, says Gunderloy, "I'm no longer contributing to the eventual death of programming."
Keith Ward is a freelance technology journalist.