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Hell freezes over: Ballmer considering open-source browser?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been an ardent critic of open source, but in Australia he actually makes a rational, pragmatic comment on the topic.

I fully expected to die never having heard a positive word escape Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's lips with regard to open source. Based on Ballmer's comments made in Sydney on Friday, however, it may be time for me to start picking out my funeral arrangements.

Speaking at a Power to Developers event, Steve Ballmer took questions from the audience and, as usual, was confronted by a question on open source. The significance here is not any earth-shaking pro-open source pronouncement from Ballmer. It's that Ballmer neglected to throw chairs around the room and responded rationally. This is progress. Really.

[Question:] Why is IE [Internet Explorer] still relevant and why is it worth spending money on rendering engines when there are open source ones available that can respond to changes in Web standards faster?...

[Ballmer's response:] Ballmer began his answer philosophically, saying Microsoft will need to look at what the browser is like in the future and, if there is no innovation around them, which he thinks is "likely", Microsoft may still need its own browser because of proprietary extensions that broaden its functionality.

"There will still be a lot of proprietary innovation in the browser itself so we may need to have a rendering service," he said...."Open source is interesting," he said. "Apple has embraced Webkit and we may look at that, but we will continue to build extensions for IE 8."

Stop the presses! Ballmer is a rational human being!!!

I'm kidding, of course, but this could well be the most rational, pragmatic, open-source-related comment from Ballmer that I've ever read. Larry Dignan at ZDNet calls it a "throwaway line," but I think it's much more. It suggests that Microsoft truly has gotten its arms around open source and has discovered what nearly every other software vendor on the planet has discovered: open source can a useful component in a larger software strategy.

No, it doesn't mean that Microsoft needs to open-source all of its technology, or even all of the technology in one particular product (as here, with the browser). It just means that Microsoft should use the best software available, including when it is open source.