Microsoft to open-source fans: It's all about the love

Redmond's top lawyer sends a message to a big open-source crowd in San Francisco: It's time to get along.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--The advance billing had the audience assuming Daniel was about to enter the lions' den. What they got was more along the lines of Mister Rogers talks tech.

Brad Smith, who is Microsoft's top lawyer, went out of his way during an afternoon talk before a gathering of open-source die-hards to portray the software company as ready to turn a page in its relationship with the developer community.

Microsoft's Brad Smith, singing a love song to open source. Charles Cooper

"Two engineers in a room can solve a problem a lot better than 1,000 lawyers," he told a packed ballroom of open-source enthusiasts and executives here, adding that the company wanted "conversation and dialogue."

"We believe in the importance of building a bridge that makes it possible for different parts of the industry to work together," Smith said. "We believe in a bridge that is scalable, that is workable, that is affordable...that's a hard bridge to build. But I will say this--today more than ever that is a bridge we very much need to build."

At another point in his keynote speech at the Open Source Business Conference on Tuesday, Smith said that Microsoft appreciated "the important role that open-source software plays in this industry" and complimented creators of open-source software for their passion. "That's not what you always heard from us and I recognize that."

"We all do software," he continued. "We are all part of the same industry--all part of the same industry that has many diverse parts to it."

But despite his conciliatory tone, Smith is no shrinking violet when it comes to protecting his company's intellectual property. Last year, he told Fortune magazine that free and open-source software violated 235 Microsoft patents. At the time, he told Fortune that the Linux kernel violates 42 Microsoft patents, while its user interface and other design elements infringe on a further 65. OpenOffice.org is accused of infringing 45, along with 83 more in other free and open-source programs, according to the interview in Fortune.

So what's changed in the intervening 10 months? Well, a lot.

Specifically, open-source software is now deeply entrenched in the computing industry and many of Microsoft's customers use open-source software widely. Still, Microsoft came to town intent on sending a message. Earlier in the day, Sam Ramji, who is Microsoft's "Director of Open Source & Linux strategy," was all smiles and full of kumbaya as he participated in a panel with three other open-source executives.

In a later Q&A onstage, Smith allowed that Microsoft was treading on delicate ground--especially on the topic of patents. He acknowledged the differences and sought to undercut any appearance of confrontation.

"We live on both sides of the patent fence every day. We have more patent lawsuits than any company in our industry," he said. "And yet we still believe in the benefits and value of a well-functioning patent system."

In February, Microsoft tried to smooth its relationship with the open-source world. Microsoft now shares communication protocols governing how its software products communicate. Microsoft also pledged not to sue open-source programmers for developing software that uses those interfaces. What's more, the company has developed what it calls an Open Source Interoperability Initiative to improve how open-source software works with its own products.

"It would be a mistake for any one of us to say that the last word has been written on any of this," Smith said.

James Bottomley, the CTO of Steeleye Technology, who was onstage with Smith questioned how Microsoft intended to square its desire to work with the open-source community, given the two sharply different business models.

Smith answered that it would be on a "project-by-project basis."

"I can't give you an answer saying here's a blank check--where do I sign," he said. "We are moving. I recognize that contributing in a variety of ways is part of the equation."

Smith didn't climb to the top of his profession at the world's largest software company by accident, and his formidable skill was on display as he guided through an assortment of audience questions--some teasing, some flip, some downright hostile--and finished the session on a note of mutual recognition.

"Ultimately, people are not caricatures. They get up in the morning. They get smarter. The industry evolves," he said. "And you want that. You don't want people to have to live with the caricatures and stay with those caricatures."