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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.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
6 min read
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."

Outsiders see changes brewing in some corners of Microsoft as well.

Barry Crist was nervous when last year he became CEO of Centeris, a Bellevue, Wash., start-up that makes software to manage mixed Linux and Windows networks.

"They're softening their stance, and time will tell if it's legitimate or marketing."
--Barry Crist, CEO, Centris

He wondered whether Microsoft would make it difficult for Centeris to develop its software, by withholding technical information or charging exorbitant licensing fees, for example.

Instead, he was surprised to find that Microsoft employees actively seek ways to work with Centeris and that they have offered to license protocols (which the company has not yet decided to do, pending a discussion on terms).

"They're softening their stance (on interoperability), and time will tell if it's legitimate or marketing," Crist said. "I think they've come to the conclusion that they would pay too stiff of a penalty from customers and regulators."

LinuxWorld Boston 2006 roundup

Former Microsoft employee Manny Vellon, the vice president of product development at Centeris, said that Microsoft continues to have many "fiefdoms." Some groups, such as management products, see a valid financial incentive in improving Windows interoperability, but that's not true across the board, he said.

"I have seen a change in behavior. Microsoft is more open to talk to people who are involved with Linux," said Markus Rex, the vice president of Suse Linux at Novell. "It's better for everybody--us, customers and Microsoft--but it's still really hard."

Nuanced approach
Hilf said that an important role he plays at Microsoft is to identify business opportunities through better interoperability with third-party products, even rival ones.

For example, Microsoft worked out a partnership with JBoss, an open-source Java server software company, and with SugarCRM, an open-source application company that decided to use one of Microsoft's shared-source licenses.

Although SugarCRM and JBoss software each competes with different divisions within Microsoft, Hilf noted that promoting use of those products on Windows is in Microsoft's interest as a "platform provider."

JBoss CEO Marc Fleury said that Microsoft executives are clever enough to use open source as a competitive weapon. Partnering with JBoss helps the software giant prop up a potential competitor to its own rival IBM, for example.

"Microsoft was more than happy to give IBM a taste of its own (open-source) medicine," Fleury said. "Of all the large vendors, Microsoft is the most pragmatic."

With growing acceptance of open-source software in the industry at large, Hilf says that Microsoft employees, in general, are becoming more comfortable with open-source products and practices.

"There's a maturation of the culture?To mature, you need to understand that you're not competing with some ghostly specter," he said.

He called work on standards and interoperability "one of the most progressive areas of work" within Microsoft.

IBM does not see it that way. Microsoft's decision to not support OpenDocument, for example, shows that the company continues to favor locking customers into its products rather than compete on the basis of standards, noted Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source.

"Standards level the playing field--and if you have dominant market share, you don't want to level the playing field," Sutor said.

Many executives wondered whether Microsoft might end up taking an uneven approach to standards support, as the company above all relies on tying its many products to Windows.

"Most of Microsoft's server technologies, for example, started their lives as subordinates to the Microsoft desktop," said Scott Dietzen, chief technology officer at open-source collaboration software company Zimbra. "Moving to a 'net-centric' view, in which customers can mix and match clients and servers, is a radical departure from that historic sweet spot."