Thoughts on the .NET Foundation

If you're looking for help with C#, .NET, Azure, Architecture, or would simply value an independent opinion then please get in touch here or over on Twitter.

The .NET Foundation Annual Survey is currently open (please do participate) and I made some comments on Twitter about how I thought the Foundation was operating “back to front” and consumer first with OSS. Claire Novotny reached out and asked me for specifics and so I thought I’d try and capture them in a format a bit more useful than a 280 character tweet.

Before I launch into this I’ll start by saying that firstly these are just my opinions – I have no special insight. They are observations meant in good spirit. And secondly: I don’t think anybody involved in the Foundation is malicious or has any kind of “bad” agenda but I do think that like all of us their views are influenced by their own bubbles and I think this is, in part, what feels like such a disconnect between the Foundation and those of us in the .NET OSS space who’s bubbles look very different.

Foundation Independence and Make-Up

Going through the “About Us” page 10 of the 17 people involved in the directorship, management team, or advisory board are from Microsoft (Microsoft / GitHub). Of the others I would argue at least 2 are from large tech businesses (World Wide Technology and Twilio).

A frequent (at least in my circles) observation made about the .NET Foundation is that it is not independent from Microsoft. The .NET Foundation maintains it is independent and perhaps legally it is but with 10 of the 17 lead roles populated by Microsoft employees in practice how can it be? Its hard to believe its ever going to act against Microsoft’s interests. Its certainly heavily slanted by Microsoft opinions.

In order to build trust Microsoft need to take a genuine back seat from the Foundations leadership. Take Microsoft off the board, or reduce to a small number of seats, and have a minority of the advisors being from Microsoft. It was good to see the majority of funding came from outside Microsoft in the last accounts but its still the dominant sponsor and dominant sponsors have a lot of clout.

Clearly Microsoft have a place at this table and the people involved are talented and well meaning but I don’t see how the Foundation will ever be truly independent and representing anyone other than a very narrow range of interests while it is slanted as it is. It desperately needs more diversity of viewpoint else its going to continue to operate in a small bubble and its certainly not going to shake its perception as a PR stunt by Microsoft.

And an independent Foundation looking out for the community should hold Microsoft to account for working against their stated mission when they don’t do this. Its hard to see that really happening as things are currently set up.

The 500kg Gorilla in the room

When it comes to .NET Microsoft are, unsurprisingly, absolutely the dominant voice in the room. Through both action and inaction they absolutely steer the .NET ecosystem – they own the roadmap for .NET. They build many of the key frameworks and surrounding technologies. If they announce a piece of technology in a space it will suck the oxygen out of the room for none-Microsoft solutions even when the MS solution is arguably poorer.

Combined with this Microsoft seem to have a real “Not Invented Here” attitude. I’m not privy to the inner workings of Microsoft but I assume they are like many large organisations – heavily siloed (though management will likely claim otherwise), promotion obtained through success in product launch, and a good degree of power dynamics at play. They also have a lot of smart engineers who they need to keep happy and who are as susceptbile to the same foibles as the rest of us (this is too complicated, I could do that better, etc. etc.).

It creates a real trust issue for OSS contributors that I’m not sure Microsoft can solve. They’re a business and if they decide something is key to their success they are going to want to clearly and unequivocally own the Intellectual Property Rights. Even if they acquihire that seems likely to result in starting again in a space. And speaking of IPR…

Copyright Assignment

While writing this piece I came across a fascinating GitHib Issue – the short version is that the Foundation has removed the options for projects that join the Foundation from the join up options leaving only the assignment model. This means that for a new project to join the Foundation it has to assign copyright to the Foundation itself with the original authors recieving a license in return.

Reading the only response from a Foundation director in the issue so far this is down to enabling the Foundation to better protect the copyright of member projects. With more details to follow.

I assume that following a copyright assignment the license is updated to read like this (taken from Benchmark .NET):

Beyond it being a mystery to me why anyone who has put thousands of hours of work into something would accept this it strikes me there are a number of things wrong with this.

  1. Its back to front – this is a significant decision for someone considering contributing their project to the Foundation, the information should be available ahead of the change.
  2. That’s a hell of an ask and somewhat based on trust in a position of power imbalance. The Foundation has a lawyer on hand – contributors often do not.
  3. Have the Foundation ever taken legal action on behalf of a member project? I genuinely don’t know. Would they take legal action against Microsoft? Or any of their other sponsors?
  4. For me at least it would need to be accompanied by a contract stating exactly what the Foundation commits to provide in return for this assignment of, essentially, ownerhip and what the consequences are for violation or change of those terms.
  5. Its not clear to me why this is required despite the statement. As far as I am aware a lawyer can be paid to act on anybodies behalf. That a contributor or the Foundation surely doesn’t effect copyright violation or any other form of violation. Again – this is why clear information needs to be provided ahead of time.
  6. How does this impact OSS practicalities? Hybrid licenses for commercial business models for example? Is this one way? Can contributors regain ownership of the copyright?

Again I feel we are back to trust and communicaton issues. The Foundation and Microsoft seem like one and the same thing to many and handling things like this just stirs that pot. Its easy to view this as either a land grab or being for consumers (a .NET Foundation license is likely more palettable to a risk averse bank than licensed by James Randall).

OSS Professionalism

Around 15 months ago the .NET Foundation proposed a maturity model for OSS – essentially this was an attempt to professionalise the OSS space so that more “risk averse” businesses would be more comfortable making use of OSS. It caused quite a ruckus amongst contributors and, fortunately, this was listened to and the Foundation pulled back.

We’re currently going through that loop again with a slightly different, and arguably healthier, spin: ecosystem growth though that too still touches on the professionalism of OSS contrasting with other ecosystems and how many projects are (as suggested) worked on by employees of businesses – essentially funded by business.

Perhaps this is the future of .NET OSS but I don’t think there are many business who will fund OSS project development to a serious degree. Certainly they exist but its a percent of a percent: larger tech companies and consultancies using OSS for matketing (unsurprisingly, the companies on the Foundation board are likely to do this), other than my own business I’ve only worked in one that would in even a minor sense (and perhaps that is my loss).

And circiling back to copyright assignment for a moment – I’ve never worked in a business that would consider giving up its copyright ownership to another organisation and I find it hard to imagine many would. Maybe I’m wrong.

In any case their has to be a clear incentive for businesses to build and maintain OSS which leads me into contributor challenges.

Contributor Challenges

It can often feel like being trapped in a no-win scenario in the .NET OSS space – it can be very hard to get any attention on to an OSS project. If projects do get a measure of success they oftem seem to flounder for one of two reasons: the author(s) lose motivation due to the demands from a now significant audience or Microsoft decide they need to do something in the same space sucking all the air out of the room.

A lot of what people seem to struggle with is none-technical – how to manage an OSS project, how to publicize it and grow an audience, recruit fellow contributors, what opportunities exist for funding and monetising, example commercial licences. Yet I can’t find any materials produced by the Foundation to help with this (Resources is essentially a list of tech books).

Once this is in place then we could start to look at maturity models and other frameworks.

Closing Thoughts

On a sunny day it seems to me the Foundation is a well meaning but clumsy communicator. On a rainy day it feels like it is far too focused on growing the ecosystem for Microsoft’s benefit with contributors at best an afterthought.

Ultimately I just think its stuck in a bit of a weird bubble.

I’d like to see it lose a lot more Microsoft employees from the Board. Not because they are bad people but because it needs to inject a more diverse set of opinions into its leadership from across broader sections of the tech community.

It also needs to communicate before it acts on critical subjects. Not doing so means it makes easily avoidable mistakes and causes distrust – the Maturity Model was carnage, the copyright assignment issue has the potential to be the same.

And finally: focus on contributors. They are the, pun unintended, foundation of OSS. Help them help you.

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