Ballmer: We'll look at open source, but we won't touch

Steve Ballmer finally recognizes that Microsoft needs to work more closely with open source. Let's hope he doesn't mean patent licensing deals.

Steve Ballmer is at least willing to talk with the open-source crowd now, as his comments at Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2008 demonstrate. He's just not willing to actually engage in open source as an appreciable part of his company's business. Fair enough.

Ballmer lacks the imagination to conceive of a world where Microsoft could open-source code and still make a lot of money (He's apparently not heard of "Google."):

No. 1, are our products likely to be open-sourced? No. We do provide our source code in special situations, but open source also implies free, free is inconsistent with paying for lunches at the partner conference. (Applause.)

But at least he's willing to work with those who do grok that the future of software business (meaning: money) is open source:

Will we interoperate with products that come from like Linux, from the open-source world? Yes, we will. Will we encourage people who want to do open-source development to do it on top of Windows? Yes, we're proud that the best PHP system in the world is actually the one that runs on Windows today, not the one that runs on Linux.

So we're going to encourage open-source innovation on our platforms, and around our platforms. And, you know, we see interesting things where bits and pieces of technology, commercial companies are now starting to provide it in an open-source form or to digest in an open-source form. And we're open to that as well. But our fundamental business model will remain kind of commercial software, advertising, enterprise licensing, etc.

You've come a long way, Ballmer. I hope you recognize that you have a long way to go, but progress is progress.

One word of caution: Don't make patent licensing a hurdle that your open-source (or proprietary) partners have to leap to do business with Microsoft. We won't. Novell plugged its nose and did it in the name of interoperability, but it has rarely mentioned the patent covenant since then (not exactly a ringing endorsement). Microsoft may have noticed that its partner announcements with leading open-source companies like MySQL dried up after the Novell deal.

Make Windows an open platform for our mutual customers and we're ready to do business. That may not mean open source today, but it should also not mean entrapment through patent deals.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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