Microsoft flirts with open source

Redmond's recent brushes with open source show signs it is coming to terms with a community that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
Written by Aaron Tan, Contributor

Microsoft's love-hate relationship with open-source software can be epitomized by recent efforts to enhance interoperability and lure developers to Windows.

Last December, the software giant introduced a pilot program called NXT to make it easier for independent software vendors (ISVs) with non-Microsoft technologies, including Linux and Unix developers, to avail their products on the Microsoft platform.

Run by Microsoft's partners, the NXT program offers software development support, technical briefings, testing and marketing campaign funding to these ISVs. A Redmond-based Microsoft spokesperson declined to say if the program will be extended to Asian developers, as the program is still in the pilot stage.

Bill Hilf, US-based platform strategy technology manager at Microsoft, insists there is no conflict between the goals of open source lab and the NXT program. Hilf runs an open source lab that tries to marry open-source software with Microsoft products.

"I won't call the NXT program contradictory to the Linux interoperability lab, because it only targets ISVs who are looking to expand their offerings beyond the Linux and Unix platforms," he told ZDNet Asia, in a phone interview.

The interoperability lab focuses on getting products from open-source ISVs such as JBoss, to work on the Microsoft platform, he said. "For example, we often collaborate with JBoss, but in certain areas we might compete with them. It's competition and cooperation," Hilf explained.

"Over time, as you see the open-source marketplace maturing and becoming more commercial, I think you'll see more of that kind of dynamics. It's not something that's unique to Microsoft," he said, adding that IBM and Oracle also compete, and at the same time, cooperate with open-source vendors.

To give his work at Microsoft's open source interoperability lab greater visibility to those in the open-source community, a Web site called Port 25, was launched last month at LinuxWorld in Boston. Hilf said: "As we do research and analysis in our lab, we're finding that more and more people are pretty interested in how we get different systems working together."

But the initiative has drawn flak from some quarters in the open-source community, judging from the responses posted on Port 25 blogs.

One reader wrote: "I fail to understand how Microsoft can help the open-source community more than [open source] can help itself.

"Microsoft never gets involved to help others; they get involved to help themselves," he added. "We have to satisfy ourselves knowing that they wasted all this time and money on this lab and paying these fine employees."

Hilf has taken reactions from the open source community in his stride. "It's really okay to be skeptical," he said. "Although there were a few loud individuals who were skeptical--and sometimes caustic--such conversations have tapered off as people start to realize that what we're doing provides value to the [open-source] community."

Josiah Ritchie, who provides technology products for an international Christian mission, noted on Port 25: "I'm glad to see Microsoft taking interest in interoperability. There are many open -source projects that I'd like to see able to authenticate against Active Directory. Work in that area would be priceless for me.

Hilf joined Microsoft two years ago to steer the company's open source-related work, So far, the lab's activities have contributed to the Redmond's push into high-performance computing--an area which he concedes is Linux's stronghold.

"We built a large cluster and help [Microsoft's product teams] understand what attracts developers and administrators to use Linux in that environment," he said.

Hilf added that his team has contributed patches to the open-source community, particularly for Samba, which connects Linux machines to Windows networks, the Gaim instant messenger, and the Apache Web server.

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