Microsoft claims: 'We love open source'

Microsoft has partially reversed stance on open source, but questions remain about company's commitment to the community

Everyone in the Linux world remembers Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's famous comment that Linux is a "cancer" that threatened Microsoft's intellectual property.

Ballmer is still CEO of Microsoft, but that comment occurred in 2001, a lifetime ago in the technology market. While Microsoft hasn't formally rescinded its declaration that Linux violates its patents, at least one Microsoft executive admits that the company's earlier battle stance was a mistake. Microsoft wants the world to understand, whatever its issues with Linux, it no longer has any gripe toward open source.

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Microsoft/Linux milestones

In 2010 Microsoft is trying hard not to be public enemy No. 1 to open source proponents, in some cases by making key contributions to open source code and in other cases by making Microsoft products interoperable with open source software.

"We love open source," says Jean Paoli of Microsoft in a recent interview with Network World. "We have worked with open source for a long time now."

The mistake of equating all open source technology with Linux was "really very early on," Paoli says. "That was really a long time ago," he says. "We understand our mistake."

Paoli is the general manager of Microsoft's interoperability strategy team, which touches on some open source issues. A Microsoft veteran of 14 years, Paoli is also the co-creator of the XML specification.

Paoli's recent work involves a new Microsoft initiative to promote interoperability among the key components of cloud networks. The initiative, described in July at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, is attempting to promote data portability; use of standards-based technologies; ease of migration and deployment across cloud networks; and developer choice.

The initiative isn't strictly an open source project, but it does illustrate Microsoft's evolving relationship with open technologies. Microsoft seems to be making a concerted effort to befriend portions of the open source community, and the company could benefit in the public relations game from unpopular moves by Oracle, which is ending the OpenSolaris project and suing Google over use of open source Java in Android.

There are still critics of Microsoft's attitude toward open source, and Microsoft gave itself a black eye in 2007 by claiming that Linux and other open source software violate a whopping 235 Microsoft patents. And in 2008, Bill Gates reportedly claimed that open source licenses ensure "that nobody can ever improve the software."

Microsoft also launched a patent lawsuit against GPS vendor TomTom last year, forcing TomTom to pay Microsoft licensing fees, and was able to force HTC to pay it royalties over use of Android.

Microsoft embraces "mixed IT"

But Paoli says Microsoft recognizes that its customers use a mix of proprietary and open source technologies.

Microsoft has released some technology under its own open source license (the "Microsoft Public License"), such as IronRuby, which integrates .Net code with the Ruby programming language.

"Today, really, the world is around mixed IT," Paoli says. "Today it is a reality that many customers, if not the majority of customers I talk to, use Oracle and Red Hat and Microsoft and IBM and VMware and Google, etc. It's all around what we are calling mixed IT. You have commercial software and open software together, in many, many cases."

Microsoft's bold patent claim in 2007 didn't amount to much. The claim seemed intended to lay the groundwork for a tougher stance on intellectual property and licensing, but after public backlash Microsoft has gotten smarter about how it approaches Linux and open source issues, says analyst Jay Lyman of The 451 Group.

"I think it's been hard, if not impossible for Microsoft to live that down," Lyman says. "They were asked to cite which patents were violated and they never did take it that far."

As Linux gained in popularity, Microsoft reached out to the Linux community directly with its biggest move toward reconciliation. It submitted driver source code for inclusion in the Linux kernel, with the intention of providing "the hooks for any distribution of Linux to run on Windows Server 2008 and its Hyper-V hypervisor technology," as Network World reported at the time. The code submission had to occur under the same GPL license, which Bill Gates has been known to criticize.

Two months after this decision Microsoft was criticized by Greg Kroah-Hartman, the Linux driver project lead who accepted the code from Microsoft. Kroah-Hartman reported that "Microsoft developers seem to have disappeared, and no one is answering my e-mails."

But Microsoft got its act together and everything seems to be fine as of now.

"From my perspective, [it's going] great," Kroah-Hartman said in an email to Network World. "The code is in the main kernel tree, Microsoft is continuing to send patches to fix up things and a few new features have been contributed by other developers, and there have been a number of patches from the community to fix up some of the more obvious problems in the code."

Despite the early hiccup, Kroah-Hartman now says, "I can't think of anything negative about this [project]."

Going forward Kroah-Hartman says to expect "More of the same, patches continue to happen, the code is cleaned up further, and eventually, the code will move out of the staging tree into its own subdirectory in the main portion of the kernel. All the while, people are using the code just fine, every day."

When told of Paoli's comment that Microsoft loves open source, Kroah-Hartman says, "That's a nice quote, I like it."

But while the Linux driver project seems to be a success, it does not mean the entire "open source community" is ready to call Microsoft friend instead of foe. Open source is an approach to developing technology and, to some extent, a philosophy. By its nature, open source cannot be represented by a single voice.

"You need to be careful about the term, 'open source community,'" Kroah-Hartman says. "That's a huge group, all of which operate independently and have their own views and goals. All I can represent is my own view as a member of the Linux kernel team and as a developer who creates different Linux distributions. So, in that viewpoint, it's nice to see Microsoft become part of the Linux kernel development team. They are responsive to bug reports from users and other developers and interact quite well, making it a pretty good 'relationship' from my viewpoint.

"But also realize that this is a relationship among individuals, not among companies at all. That's one of the best things I find about open source development, the companies are not involved, it's all personal relationships in the end."

Microsoft needs to extend relationship with Linux, some say

Microsoft is only "dabbling" in open source at this point, argues Matt Asay, chief operating officer of Ubuntu Linux vendor Canonical, in a column for The Register.

"One big bet Microsoft should make is on open source, the tool of the underdog, a label that is coming to fit the Redmond giant," Asay says.

Microsoft "needs to go deep on Linux," not by replacing Windows with Linux but by "acquiring Novell's Suse Linux business and focusing it completely on mobile," Asay argues (though perhaps he simply wants Microsoft to take out one of his competitors).

"Open source offers the company a way to keep its Windows and Office billions while charting a course toward its next one or more billion-dollar businesses. It's a big bet, but given its failures with KIN and Zune, it's about time for Microsoft to take a much bigger risk on open source," Asay concludes.

Whether Microsoft dives deeper into open source is an open question, but one prominent voice in software says the war between Microsoft and open source is a thing of the past, in part because Microsoft could not destroy open source even if it wanted to.

"The battle is over," Mitch Kapor, who founded Lotus Software, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Open Source Applications Foundation, and helped create the Mozilla Foundation, said in a Guardian article last year.

"At the detailed level, there are a million issues to work out -- but will open source kill software? Nobody's saying that," Kapor also said at the time.

Microsoft can gain from Oracle's missteps

Microsoft has an opportunity to boost its reputation among open source proponents in part because of public relations mistakes by Oracle, which as noted earlier is ending the OpenSolaris project and suing Google over use of Java.

The unfortunate thing for Oracle is that it has previously embraced Linux by belonging to open source organizations, contributing to the Linux code and supporting Linux in the enterprise, Lyman says. In the case of the Java lawsuit, Oracle appears publicly to be attacking the open source community at large, even though its specific target is Google.

The Oracle moves do make Microsoft look good by comparison, Lyman says.

"This is good for Microsoft, that Oracle is being talked about as a foe of open source software," he says. "A lot of observers see similar behavior from Oracle that is the stuff that got Microsoft in trouble. Oracle probably could have done a better job of making sure nobody thought they were attacking open source."

Going forward, Microsoft will still struggle to balance the needs of its licensing business against the risk of appearing too litigious. "I think [Microsoft is] aware that the wrong legal action could lead to a more widespread response," Lyman says.

Microsoft doesn't have a single official who oversees all of its open source initiatives (unless you count CEO Ballmer). "Microsoft's open source initiative is a shared responsibility across the organization, and more than 150 people across the company play a critical role in strengthening collaboration efforts among the open source community," a Microsoft spokesperson says.

But Microsoft has multiple projects that embrace open source and a dedicated website detailing its open source projects and goals.

On the virtualization front, Microsoft has clashed with VMware, the maker of proprietary virtualization software, but partnered with Citrix, which sells technology based on the Xen open source hypervisor.

Paoli notes several initiatives that illustrate Microsoft's commitment to open source and open standards. Microsoft helped create OData, the Open Data Protocol, which uses Web technologies to "free" data from applications that might otherwise lock it up. Microsoft also recently expanded the CodePlex Foundation to encourage development of open source.

Microsoft's Windows Azure team has also provided software development kits for developers who use PHP and Java, not just for its own proprietary .Net Framework.

In the end, Microsoft's embrace of open source principles will only go so far. It's highly unlikely that Windows will ever become an open source operating system. Microsoft is making targeted moves that bolster its open source reputation in response to real market demands. If Microsoft continued to shun open source completely, it would have lost existing customers and potentially new opportunities for growth.

In a time when Microsoft is no longer the world's most valuable tech company -- that title, measured by stock performance, is now held by Apple -- Steve Ballmer can't afford to ignore a market force as large as the one posed by open source.

Interoperability among many technologies, which often involves integration with open source software, is what customers are demanding, Paoli says. Those demands will only grow stronger because of the proliferation of cloud computing and the vendor lock-in concerns cloud computing has created and amplified.

"We know that organizations are running a mixed IT environment," Paoli says. "They all have Windows and Linux and IBM. They all told us that connectivity, interoperability are key, and flexibility, to choose what want to use and when they want to use it."

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This story, "Microsoft claims: 'We love open source'" was originally published by Network World.

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