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Microsoft delays controversial ban on paid-for open source, WebKit in app store

Embrace, extend, excuses

The Microsoft Store, an online source for Windows apps and other apps, was supposed to enact new policies on July 16 that forbid developers from selling open-source apps that are otherwise available for free and from distributing browser apps that use Apple's WebKit engine.

But on Friday, Giorgio Sardo, general manager of the Microsoft Store, indicated Microsoft will delay enforcement in response to the earful Redmond has been getting from the developer community.

Announced last month, the changes appear to be intended to improve the Microsoft Store experience. For example, they include a section forbidding apps that "provide content related to information, news, or current events in the real world from disseminating misinformation."

But the revised rules limits what developers can do with open source software. For example, they contain a prohibition on Microsoft Store apps using Apple's WebKit browser engine. In fact, any web browser engine that isn't Chromium, Gecko, or EdgeHTML would be banned, so it's not just WebKit verboten.

Apple's Safari browser, based on WebKit, hasn't been officially supported for Windows since 2012, though as WebKit is open source, an enterprising developer (or team of them, since browsers are complicated) could presumably create a browser for Windows.

What makes this unusual is that Microsoft in February announced its Open App Store Principles to address regulatory concerns about competition arising from its Activision/Blizzard acquisition. The Windows giant did so fully aware of the antitrust challenges to Apple's App Store and Google Play around the world. In fact, Microsoft has supported efforts to force its rivals to relax their own store rules.

One major aspect of the regulatory pushback against Apple has been its App Store browser rule, which requires all iOS browser apps to be based on its WebKit engine, rather than Google's open source Chromium/Blink or Mozilla's open source Gecko engine.

The EU's Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act aim to enhance competition with new rules that disallow Apple's WebKit requirement. The UK Competition and Markets Authority is considering a similar rule, as is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the US.

So it's unexpected to see Microsoft declare in Section 10.2.1: "Products that browse the web must use either the Chromium or the Gecko open source engine." (The company is also making an exception for legacy apps in the Microsoft Store built with its discontinued EdgeHTML engine.)

Developers appear to be more concerned about Microsoft's decision to limit how apps based on open source software can be sold. Section 10.8.7 in the revised policy says, "Not attempt to profit from open-source or other software that is otherwise generally available for free, nor be priced irrationally high relative to the features and functionality provided by your product."

The policy change arrives amid criticism of Microsoft following the commercial availability of GitHub Copilot, a subscription-based AI code suggestion tool trained on open source code. The Software Freedom Conservancy, an open source advocacy group, last week accused Microsoft of profiting from open source without providing clarity about whether Copilot complies with licensing terms and urges open source developers to drop GitHub.

Hayden Barnes, senior engineering manager SUSE Rancher, expressed concern that the new rules unreasonably limit the financial options available to open source developers.

"I am disappointed by the Microsoft Store policy change that prohibits selling open source software," he said earlier this week in a Twitter post. "The Store provides independent open source developers an opportunity to create sustainable projects by charging a reasonable amount there."

Barnes said several open-source projects have benefited from being sold in the Store, like WinSCP and Krita. "In addition to hurting them, this could also drive more Store apps to go proprietary," he said.

In response, Sardo, who oversees the Microsoft Store, insisted Microsoft is just trying to prevent abusive store listings, like app clones.

"We absolutely want to support developers distributing successful OSS apps," he said. "In fact there are already fantastic OSS apps in the Store! The goal of this policy is to protect customers from misleading listings."

The goal of this policy is to protect customers from misleading listings

Sardo said Microsoft would review the policy language to make sure its intent is clear.

Denver Gingerich, SFC FOSS license compliance engineer, and Bradley M. Kuhn, SFC policy fellow – who laid into Microsoft for Copilot – argue that the Microsoft Store policy change shows the hypocrisy of Microsoft's claim that it loves open source.

"This is first and foremost an affront to all efforts to make a living writing open source software," they wrote in a blog post on Thursday. "This is not a merely hypothetical consideration. Already many developers support their FOSS development (legitimately so, at least under the FOSS licenses themselves) through app store deployments that Microsoft recently forbid in their Store."

Gingerich and Kuhn pointed to the Krita painting program and video-editing software ShotCut as two open-source-based apps that will soon be in violation of Microsoft Store terms. They also pointed to the SFC's own Inkscape project, which in the Microsoft Store previously opted to request donations rather than require a fee, and now must do so as a matter of compliance.

They say Microsoft has done this before – rolling out unreasonable policies then "magnanimously" retracting them.

"Selling open source software has been a cornerstone of open source's sustainability since its inception," said Gingerich and Kuhn. "Precisely because you can sell it, open source projects like Linux (which Microsoft claims to love) have been estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Microsoft apparently does not want any FOSS developers to be able to write open source in a sustainable way."

Selling open source software has been a cornerstone of open source's sustainability since its inception

They conclude by demanding that Microsoft repudiate its anti-FOSS Microsoft Store policies and clarify that selling open source software is not only allowed but encouraged.

The Register asked Microsoft to explain why open-source apps cannot be sold through the Store, and why WebKit and alternative engines are banned. A company spokesperson responded with a statement that didn't explicitly address our inquiry.

"Microsoft Store supports and encourages OSS developers to publish free and paid apps, including browsers using other engines," the spokesperson said via email and pointed to a followup comment Sardo posted on Friday.

"On June 16, we shared a policy aimed to protect customers from misleading listings, in effect from July 16," said Sardo via Twitter. "In listening to [the] dev community, we got feedback it could be perceived differently than intended. We'll delay enforcement of that policy until we clarify the intent. Stay tuned."

We pressed Microsoft on whether WebKit-based browsers will still be forbidden. A spokesperson told us: "We have nothing further to share." ®

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