Microsoft revising its attitude toward open source

Microsoft's handling of its Powerset acquisition as well as its contribution of code to the ADOdb PHP project point to a friendlier stance regarding open-source software

When Microsoft completed its acquisition of San Francisco-based startup Powerset in July, it acquired more than just search-engine technology. In the HBase component of Powerset's product, Microsoft also acquired open-source code that is actively being redistributed back into the Apache Software Foundation's Hadoop project.

The scenario of having open-source technology in a product is a first for Microsoft, which to date has had only proprietary technology in its software, said Robert Duffner, a senior director in Microsoft's Platform Strategy Group.

[ Microsoft's relationship with open source sometimes has been adversarial, as when it sought royalties from open-source companies. ]

Letting the acquired technology exist as it is, and letting the former Powerset employees continue to contribute code to Hadoop, represents a shift in mindset and strategy at the company to be more friendly toward open-source technology and realize that "innovation occurs across a wide variety of technologies," he said.

In addition to the Powerset code, Microsoft also for the first time in 2008 began contributing other code to open-source projects. In July, Microsoft began providing code to a PHP project called ADOdb. PHP is an open-source, freely available scripting language that developers widely use for Web development.

Duffner's group, under the direction of Microsoft Senior Director Sam Ramji, is driving this movement to not only accept open-source software as a technology with which Microsoft's software has to interoperate effectively, but also to see it as beneficial to both Microsoft's own business goals and the industry as a whole.

Having long positioned Windows and other proprietary software against open source as "us versus them," Microsoft is now trying to convince customers that the two technologies are not mutually exclusive and in fact can even be complementary at times.

Part of the duty of the Platform Strategy Group, formed a little over a year ago, is also to reverse the message of Microsoft's previous and infamous "Get the Facts" campaign, which aggressively tried to show customers the value proposition of deploying a Windows environment instead of Linux.

This new attitude also is a far cry from the Microsoft of only a year-and-a-half ago, when CEO Steve Ballmer claimed that Linux violates 235 patents Microsoft holds and said the company was considering seeking patent royalties from open-source distributors.

"It's been quite a while since we've heard very much saber-rattling [from Microsoft] on open source," said Jay Lyman, open-source analyst with The 451 Group. "It's indicative that there is true change going on over there."

However, even members of the Platform Strategy Group team admit that turning the entire Microsoft ship to accept this new attitude is no easy task, and it's a process that is still evolving across the company.

"There are some groups within Microsoft [where] it's taking longer for the message to filter down," said Peter Galli, senior open-source community manager of the Platform Strategy Group.

Microsoft hired Galli, a former journalist who covered both Microsoft and Linux, several months ago as a "change agent" to help spread the new open-source message across the company, Duffner said.

An example of how old habits die hard came just last week, when Microsoft's public relations team posted a case study on its PressPass Web site highlighting how a U.K. company called Speedy Hire expects to save $1.48 million in five years after switching from Linux to Windows. The interview, which Microsoft's public relations team pointed out to journalists through an e-mail campaign, had no apparent news value and seemed out of context, as the Speedy Hire case study was a year old.

Blatant open-source bashing like this is what the Platform Strategy Group is trying to change, Galli said.

However, Microsoft still believes that running a Windows Server environment has a better total cost of ownership than a Red Hat Enterprise Linux environment, something that many customers still don't quite understand because some still believe open source means free of charge.

This message is especially important during the current recession in the U.S., when many companies are looking to cut costs, Duffner said.

He stressed that Microsoft by no means wants to promote the use of open-source software to its customers, and still thinks its own software is superior. However, embracing open source is about giving customers and developers the chance to make their own decisions about which software to buy, and making sure both Microsoft and open-source software can be part of the same buying decision, Duffner said.

The 451 Group's Lyman concurred that Microsoft's interest in open source is "its own self-interest." "They want open source on Windows to be just as good as open source on Linux," he said.

Lyman added that it "makes sense" for Microsoft to differentiate between attacking other vendors like Red Hat and attacking open source as an ideology, which is what the company has done in the past and which has proven to be a battle that it can't win.

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