Is Microsoft playing well with others?

As it opens up to Linux and rival software, company faces deep skepticism over whether it's really changed its stripes.

BOSTON--At last year's LinuxWorld, Microsoft executive Bill Hilf stalked the stage dressed as a "Star Wars" storm trooper. This time, he tried a friendlier tack to charm the Linux faithful.

Microsoft is launching a Web site to cultivate communication with open-source software customers, he told an audience at the trade show Thursday. It's a sign that the once standoffish software maker is willing to live alongside open source, he said.

"We can either tell customers, 'It's our way or the highway,' or we can try to meet their needs," said Hilf, who runs an open-source lab within Microsoft and is responsible for the company's shared-source initiative.

Make no mistake: Microsoft competes as fiercely as ever against open-source products and business models. But recent moves signify a subtle change in stance--an acceptance that Microsoft software can no longer stay an island, according to some industry executives.

In addition to wooing open-source customers through the Web site, called Port 25, Microsoft will support joint Windows-Linux customers. And executives claim Microsoft has stepped up its commitment to industry standards.

The moves could be seen as a sign of a more collaborative, more welcoming, Microsoft. But the software giant faces deep skepticism about its motives.

Microsoft in the open

Is the software giant softening on open source? Here are recent moves that suggest it's reaching out.

• Plans to run and support Linux in Virtual Server and future Windows Server versions.

• Working to make support for standards "more a matter of course," an exec says.

• Intends to share more source code with customers and developers.

• Next year, will deliver software for writing programs that run on rival browsers, the Mac and maybe on other OSes.

• Chairman Bill Gates speaks up for interoperability, saying Microsoft wants to "eliminate friction" between applications.

Executives at rival companies noted that Microsoft does not support open-source products and standards as a matter of course. Rather, its decisions are dictated by customer or regulator demands.

"Internally, nothing has changed. Outside, they're nice and happy and they say, 'We'll play well together.' Inside, it's war," said Jeremy Allison, the co-creator of Samba, open-source software for running Windows desktops with Linux. "The goal of engineering of work is to prevent interoperability."

As an example, Allison said that Windows Vista will have a new set of protocols to exchange information with desktop PCs, rather than relying on the protocols that already work with third-party products.

Other skeptics see Microsoft's sidling up to open source as a dig at IBM, its chief rival in business software.

Microsoft has also been criticized because it has said it will not support the OpenDocument standard in Office 12, citing lack of customer demand.

Regulators continue to pursue Microsoft as well: European Union watchdogs are still not satisfied with the company's level of openness and the ability for other companies to access Microsoft-specific protocols.

Saying the right things?
In the past, Microsoft was generally not friendly to standards and technologies that didn't favor Windows.

In the late 1990s, for example, it made changes to the Java software, which works with many operating systems, to "optimize" Java applications for Windows. That move was a contributing factor in antitrust suits.

In addition, the company has been downright hostile toward open source, notably Linux, according to analysts and industry executives.

But despite its patchy record on interoperability, Microsoft does seem to be adopting a more proactive approach to working with the non-Microsoft world, going by a number of recent moves.

On Monday, it said that it will run and support Linux in its Virtual Server product and future versions of Windows Server.

It reorganized its standards group to make support for standards "less reactive?and more a matter of course," Tom Robertson, the newly appointed general manager of standards at Microsoft, has said.

Bill Hilf
Bill Hilf,
platform strategy GM,

After hiring people like Hilf and Jim Hugunin, who have experience with open-source products and practices, Microsoft plans to expand use of its shared-source program to share source code with customers and developers.

Next year, the company will release software for writing applications that run on non-Microsoft browsers and the Mac, and potentially on other operating systems.

Microsoft executives said these changes are driven by market demand.

In addition, concerns over regulatory pressure to share software--coming from sources such as the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Union--are "deeply ingrained" at Microsoft, Hilf said. "It's always a top-of-mind concern for us."

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