Microsoft and open source: no longer incompatible?

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Microsoft and open source: no longer incompatible?

Redmond (WA) – In a very strange way, Microsoft pioneered the concept of open-source software. While you’re still swallowing hard after that last sentence, take a few moments and some deep breaths, and just think about my explanation for a moment: Microsoft’s cornerstone product was its BASIC interpreter. To have learned to program in BASIC during the 1970s, as many of us did using TRS-80 Level II BASIC, or Applesoft BASIC – both of which were made by Microsoft, and co-authored by Bill Gates himself – you printed out program listings on an old Centronics dot-matrix printer, and you shared them with your friends and colleagues. The first microcomputers were sustained by the earliest form of an open-source initiative.

Today, the open source movement is, to at least some degree, an effort to provide an alternative to all things Microsoft, the exceptions being those factions interested in bringing Microsoft’s standards to the open source world. One example is the Mono project to bring the .NET runtime library to other operating systems, which is sponsored by Novell. Still, analysts routinely interpret the data on the success of open source software versus Windows applications, servers, and operating systems. Just yesterday, ZDNet UK reported that Microsoft’s head of anti-piracy efforts in Britain, Michaela Alexander, was cited in the company’s Partner Update magazine as advising vendors there not to sell PCs without operating systems installed. Since Linux is often installed by customers who have purchased “naked PCs,” Alexander’s comments were interpreted by many as another Microsoft slam of Linux.

In late January, in response to a demand for interoperability information from the European Commission, Microsoft expanded its Shared Source Initiative to enable complainants in that dispute to obtain licensed access to connectivity portions of Windows source code. Observers attributed Microsoft’s move as an attempt to give off the appearance of being forthcoming, while at the same time revealing the least self-explanatory information it could. Later, in response to several of the European complainants demands that Microsoft be more forthcoming about its existing document formats for its Office suite of applications, the company responded by joining the OpenDocument standards body, which is responsible for maintaining the formats for competitive suites such as StarOffice and OpenOffice. Observers interpreted the company’s petition to join OpenDocument as an effort to stall that body from making progress against the suite estimated to have as much as 95% market share.

The almost unavoidable perception of Microsoft as the enemy of open source, by virtue of its competitive position against Linux, has doubtless been among the company’s chief sources of negative press. This may be why Microsoft’s recent efforts to position itself as a contributing member of the open source community has been met to date with, to put things very mildly, considerable skepticism. Last week, the company quietly launched a new blog, named Port 25, which will serve as the public face of Microsoft’s initiative to position itself as a friend of the open source movement. The name comes from the IP port number for SMTP, which is the service that handles incoming e-mail.

In his inaugural message to the blog, Bill Hilf, who at the time was the manager of Microsoft’s Open Source Software Lab (yes, there is indeed such a thing) referred to a post to Slashdot last August, where editor Robin Miller relayed a series of questions from Slashdot’s loyal readers, as Hilf made his premiere appearance at, of all places, LinuxWorld in San Francisco. In that post, he suggested that curious parties contact him at his Microsoft e-mail address. Miller then advised him, Hilf wrote, to reconsider supplying that address and post a link to a Web page instead, lest he become deluged with responses…which he apparently was.

“[Book publisher] Tim O’Reilly has talked about the importance of architectures for participation,” wrote Hilf. “The value of building an architecture to allow participation was never more clear than reading (and responding!) to thousands of these emails.” Thus came the inspiration, he added, for Port 25.

One of the first articles in Port 25’s lineup is clearly not a first-person, off-the-cuff blog entry, but a slick, polished article featuring an interview with Hilf – now Microsoft’s General Manager for Platform Strategy – as well as an introduction to the OSS lab, featuring a considerable dose of the tone and flavor that Microsoft’s regular customers, and members of the press, have come to know, especially including the introduction of entirely new words to the world’s vocabulary. This time, the new word is “coopetition,” which the article describes as learning to live with, and interoperate with, the very same products that, at many levels, the company must compete with.

The biggest problem the OSS lab is working to solve, says the article, is ironically the same one that European regulators have cast such a negative spotlight on: interoperability. In fact, the term is becoming a watchword among political observers in the EU, who are taking note of commissioner’s rising popularity in the midst of attacking public demons such as Microsoft, the enemy of all things good and open.

Rather than breathe fire and spit venom, which is what some at Microsoft may have understandably been tempted to do, the company’s policy now – made very clear by Port 25 – is to broadcast the message that it, too, has been made aware of the need for interoperability, and that its challenge now is to resolve the primary question of interoperability made obvious by the European Commission demands – even though the EC isn’t mentioned directly. In one part of the Hilf interview, he said, “Customers frequently ask us how we manage open source software inside such a Microsoft-centric IT environment…They want to know how we get the platforms to work together, how we handle software deployment, and what kind of tools we use. We’ve had to figure out ways to interoperate not just within the [OSS] lab, which itself is incredibly complex and diverse – but also between the lab and the rest of Microsoft.”

One notices right away that, for an open source blog, there’s not very much source code actually being shared here…in truth, there’s hardly any. OSS admits to partaking in the receiving end of shared code; as far as the sharing, that’s done through the Shared Source Initiative, not through the types of code snippets you’d generally find peppered amid the blog posts of a developers’ site. Instead, what Microsoft is trying to open up in Port 25 is the developers themselves, to present their more sociable side.

For instance, Sam Ramji, who took over directorship of the lab from Hilf after his promotion, introduces himself as a “Richard Feynman fan,” referring to the discoverer of quantum chromodynamics. In his inaugural post, Ramji wrote, “In Computer Science nearly everything studied is known because it was invented by people – so why not call it Computer Philosophy But in the Open Source Software Lab we actually do practice science. What’s in a given Open Source package or Linux distribution? How was it written? How has it changed over time? What are the limits of its scope and performance? This is the fun stuff. We get to explore things we don’t understand, learn about them, and document the results. We also contribute to the cause of interoperability through testing various technologies.”

That pervasive keyword is everywhere you look on Port 25 – a fact which will, in this era of over-analysis, lead to another cycle of renewed skepticism over the company’s motives. Is Microsoft truly working to extend the hand of friendship to the penguin-wearing community, or is it merely making a rather elaborate open letter to Neelie Kroes? Bill Hilf himself advises his readers in Port 25 that reality is “not so black-and-white.” As vast an organization as Microsoft has become, the truth here is, as it usually tends to be, a little of both.