As part of the run-up to Vista's eventual emergence, Microsoft is running Readiness Labs to help independent software vendors check their code on the new operating system. It has done this before. What it hasn't done before is invite an open source project in to play: now it has. And not just any old open source project — the gilt-edged card has gone to Firefox, the browser that carries within it the soul of Netscape.
It's not that Firefox needs Microsoft's help, particularly. It's a cross-platform product that already runs well on many disparate platforms: Firefox has taught Microsoft far more lessons of late than Microsoft has had occasion to return. Vista is largely based on Windows XP, and poses few challenges. But the Vista Readiness Labs have tools to help check for obscure or unlikely incompatibilities — it's an opportunity to resolve problems before launch that would otherwise reflect badly on both organisations. From a purely practical point of view, we welcome the move as one likely to produce more reliable software.
The gesture, though, is groundbreaking. Ten years ago, Ballmer declared war on Netscape with the launch of IE 3.0, a war that was subsequently prosecuted with every trick in the Microsoft book. Netscape succumbed, but Microsoft was found guilty of monopoly abuse by the US Department of Justice and, more harmfully, by public opinion. Subsequent events haven't shaken the perception of Microsoft as a company that is determined to cut off a company's air supply rather than share a market, with the European courts most recently finding the company guilty of further malpractice.
So when Sam Ramji, director of Microsoft's Open Source Software Labs, talks of "the non-trivial effort of getting slots for non-commercial open source projects", we can believe him. But he did it, and for the flagship open source product — a phoenix reborn from the enemy that Microsoft thought had gone for good.
This is an act we wholeheartedly applaud. It shows that Microsoft can rise above the playground pettiness that has far too often coloured the company's public relations. It speaks of a cultural change that is having a practical effect. It hints that maybe, just maybe, the company has rediscovered a respect for its users as something more than revenue generation units.
In time, we'll find out how deep such changes run. Nobody's expecting Ballmer to run Firefox at the Vista launch, or open source IE 8. But for a company that once habitually tweaked its own operating systems to shut down its rivals' software, it's a cracking start on the road to sanity. More, please.