Microsoft Meets Open Source: Glasnost 2.0

Last week I spent two days on campus in Redmond with about 40 of my industry colleagues at the Microsoft Technology Summit, an annual invite-only event where Microsoft selects a swath of people from all over the world -- key technology influencers -- to learn about what the company is doing in its development labs and to preview advanced technology and new products, as well as to provide an environment for face to face dialogue and direct feedback.

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Last week I spent two days on campus in Redmond with about 40 of my industry colleagues at the Microsoft Technology Summit, an annual invite-only event where Microsoft selects a swath of people from all over the world -- key technology influencers -- to learn about what the company is doing in its development labs and to preview advanced technology and new products, as well as to provide an environment for face to face dialogue and direct feedback.

Starting from the cocktail mixer at the Bellevue Hyatt on the Tuesday evening that I got there and introducing myself to each attendee, it became increasingly apparent that this was no typical analyst/press/blogger Microsoft meet and greet.

With the exception of Rob Enderle and myself – who were the only two “Professional” journalists and analysts present at the event as far as I could tell -- the entire guest list was stacked with Open Source community folks, such as William Hurley, BMC Software’s Chief Open Source strategist and David Recordon, the the founder of OpenID. It wasn’t all Penguinista heavyweights either – there were a bunch of people who ran OSS-heavy IT shops at major corporations and even academic types from developing countries in Africa who were using Open Source software to put technology in the hands of underprivileged kids, like the guy who was deploying Ubuntu and Linux Terminal Server thin clients to students in his home country of Namibia.

The itinerary itself was very structured – we were locked in a presentation room from 8:30 to 5:30 each day, where we were presented with a myriad of PowerPoints and demos and lectures on everything from Silverlight to advanced data visualization technologies from Microsoft Research, to fifth generation programming languages, to demos on to how to run native PHP code and WordPress on IIS 7 in Windows Server 2008 and a tutorial on how to how to create armies of simulated killer robots using Visual Studio.

All of that stuff was certainly intriguing, and I learned a lot of new stuff about what legitimately cool things Microsoft is doing that I wasn’t aware of before. It should be added that pretty much every demo and presentation we were shown was usually prefaced or ended by “Oh yeah, by the way, Miguel de Icaza pretty much has all this stuff ported to Linux already, and if it isn’t working now, we’re gonna make it work really soon.”

Of all the stuff I saw, I was most impressed with the presentation from Sam Ramji’s Open Source group, which is heavily focused on Windows to Open Source interoperability projects. Apparently, it is one of the most system-dense groups in the entire company, and is dedicated almost entirely to making sure that new releases of Microsoft products don’t break interoperability with Linux and other Open Source Software. The Open Source lab in Redmond has become increasingly important with the European Union legislation, as Microsoft must now directly assist Open Source projects such as SAMBA and Apache with implementing interoperability based on published specifications rather than half-hearted efforts at assisting these projects in the past who had to reverse-engineer interoperability and didn’t have the benefit of having fully documented protocols or APIs.

Clearly, billion dollar fines are a big incentive to helping Open Source interoperability efforts, but the mission of the Microsoft Open Source lab is apparently not only limited to what is being enforced in the international courts – there are a slew of projects Microsoft is undertaking just because they feel the technology would greatly improve visibility and usage of their platforms on Open Source systems.

Back in the good old days when we were able to define the political boundaries of the world by what was behind the Iron Curtain and what was not, the term “Glasnost” was used to define the new openness of the Soviet Union. It would be difficult to say that Steve Ballmer is Microsoft’s Mikhail Gorbachev – his patent and intellectual property saber rattling in the past year would seem to put him more firmly in the Nikita Khrushchev shoe-banging “We will bury you” on the podium camp rather than be characterized like the reformative and cuddly Gorby.

Still, I have to think that after having to lick their wounds to the tune of a few billion dollars by the international courts, it sounds like they may finally be willing to begin to play nice with Linux and the Open Source Community. Clearly, what we are seeing here are baby steps, and a lot more progressive actions need to be made by the company until what we are seeing is full blown Perestroika and not just a passing fling.

In my next column, I’ll discuss what’s on my Microsoft Open Source wish-list. Got any of your own? Talk back and let me know.

EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN APRIL FOOL'S JOKE.