Linux not MS' only open-source target

Microsoft Corp. may have its competitive sights trained on Linux, but it's watching other open-source fronts for openings, as well.

Microsoft signed a three-year open source development and support contract to further optimise for Windows the Active Perl product from ActiveState Tool Corp., a Vancouver, British Columbia vendor. ActiveState made the announcement Tuesday. Perl is an open-source development language.

Under terms of the agreement, ActiveState will add features "previously missing from Windows ports of Perl," as well as Unicode support for Windows, making the product more appealing to international users. Microsoft, for its part, is expected to integrate the enhanced Perl product and/or Perl technologies contained therein into the next version of its NT Services For Unix product.

Microsoft did not return a request for comment by press time.

A number of posters on the Linux news site slashdot.org expressed concern that Microsoft might fragment the Perl community by releasing a version of the language to include Windows-specific extensions. Such a situation would not be without precedent. Microsoft added Windows classes and keywords to its implementation of Java, Visual J++, which resulted in the Microsoft version of Java not passing Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java compatibility tests. Sun and Microsoft are in the midst of a lawsuit over whether or not Microsoft violated its Java contract terms by adding these Windows-specific elements to J++.

ActiveState's CEO Dick Hardt says he is aware of the Java situation and "we don't want this to happen with Perl." Hardt adds that while Microsoft is free to do what it will with any jointly developed Perl technologies, he has reason to believe that, to Microsoft, "Perl is not seen as a strategic language."

"Microsoft is not one entity," Hardt emphasises. "Different groups have different focuses, in terms of what they're trying to make happen. But this is a case of Microsoft supporting open source the way they should be." Hardt says ActiveState's intention is to continue to make its Perl implementation available as open source under the so-called Artistic License. In the cases where the company decides to keep various value-added elements proprietary, it still will make them available commercially.

"Perl is the duct tape of the Internet. We're the tape dispenser," quips Hardt, who says he did the original port of Perl 5 to Windows under contract to Microsoft four to five years ago. Since last Fall, when open-source advocate Eric Raymond made public a Microsoft internal white paper regarding the company's views on open source as a competitive threat to NT, speculation has reigned, in terms of actions Microsoft plans to take in this arena.

Microsoft president Steve Ballmer has said repeatedly that Microsoft is investigating making elements of NT and/or its various application programming interfaces open source. But other Microsoft officials have countered Ballmer, claiming that Microsoft already makes a lot of its code available to universities and laboratories under licensing terms similar to open-source agreements.

Rumours have also persisted that Microsoft is actively working on porting its Office desktop suite and/or its Internet Explorer browser to Linux. Microsoft officials have attempted to downplay these rumours. Yesterday on slashdot, however, a poster noted that Microsoft is advertising via its own online job finder for a marketing manager charged with keeping tabs on Linux. The job advertising seems to have been removed from Microsoft's site today.

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