Microsoft keeps its open source enemies close

Summary:Are the software giant's recent attempts to reach out to the open source community genuine or just another example of its embrace, extend and extinguish strategy?

At a conference sponsored by the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) in Maryland this spring, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith made what some called Microsoft's first public effort to reconcile with the open source world. There was, Smith said, a "broad panoply of software development models", and Microsoft was "going to have to figure out how to build some bridges between the various parts of our industry".

Microsoft might not be changing its development practices, but "bridges" were necessary "so that we all have the ability to collaborate with each other". He called for "some new rotations" in working together with the open-source community, sharing technology and intellectual property, and licensing.

The remarks were something of a shift for Microsoft, to put it mildly. The company at one time engaged in a high-profile smear campaign against the fundamentals of open-source development, with top executives criticising the GPL as "Pac-Man-like", "viral" and a "cancer". The GPL is perhaps the most popular open source licence, covering core software such as the Linux operating system kernel and the networking technology Samba.

This way of talking about open source set the tone for debate — not only was Microsoft going to compete with Linux, Apache and the like, it was going to wage a holy war against the whole "un-American" idea of "free software".

Smith isn't the only one who seems to be saying nice things about open source all of a sudden. Indeed, all of Redmond seems to be pitching in on the charm offensive, and not all of the effort is aimed at public relations. Could some sort of rapprochement be at hand? If so, industry observers say those benefiting the most could be customers, who have long been stuck in the crossfire while Microsoft and open-source companies battled it out.

The signs of a thaw have begun to add up. For instance, Microsoft has begun sponsoring and paying for space at open source conferences, as a way to make sure its side of the story is heard; these include LinuxWorld and the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC), of which it is a platinum sponsor.

At April's Microsoft Management Summit, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer took a significant step away from the company's long-standing emphasis on homogenous Windows application and server environments. Going forward, Ballmer said, Microsoft management tools would be dedicated to managing heterogeneity. "We grew up focussed in on Windows, managing Windows, taking care of Windows," Ballmer said in the keynote speech. "Today I want to mark essentially a step forward." The presentation included a demonstration involving Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advance Server 3. Newer Microsoft technical certifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Architect credential, cover a variety of tools and technologies, including open source.

Not long before the Management Summit, in late March, Ballmer secretly met with Red Hat's Matthew Szulik for more than an hour at a McCormick & Schmick's restaurant in New York, sources confirmed. The companies wouldn't comment on the meeting, but Microsoft chairman Bill Gates acknowledged the company is interested in talking to open source players. "There are some of those [open source] players that are looking at commercial-type revenues. We'll certainly spend time with those people to see what we have in common and what we can do for customers together," Gates said, adding he didn't consider it a "big, new development".

Topics: Enterprise Software

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