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Microsoft learns to live with open source

Though it still opposes open-source products and licensing, Microsoft is begrudgingly adopting similar practices to appeal to its corporate customers.

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
Two years ago, software engineer Shaun Walker got an e-mail from a Microsoft product manager, suggesting ways to keep Walker's development project from foundering.

That led to a meeting at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, where the software giant decided to provide Walker with a business mentor and Internet hosting. But Walker had one important stipulation: He insisted that his Web content management system, built atop Microsoft's Windows and .Net software, be free and open source.

Surprisingly, Microsoft--once the sworn enemy of open source--went along. "They've been supportive in many ways," said Walker. "To be competitive, they have to adapt to the changing landscape."


What's new:
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer once decried Linux and open source as a "cancer." But the company has gradually softened its stance, showing more willingness of late to adopt open-source development techniques and interoperate with open-source products.

Bottom line:
Microsoft's shift in attitude toward open-source is pragmatic. The company has learned to better compete against open-source products, but overall it remains opposed to the economic model.

More stories on this topic

Microsoft's commitment to Walker's product, now called DotNetNuke, underscores an ongoing shift in Microsoft's stance toward open source.

Chief Executive Steve Ballmer once famously called Linux and the open-source philosophy a "cancer." Now it's a fact of life in the software business.

In the past few months, the company has committed to working with open-source products--to a point--and shown a willingness to adopt aspects of the open-source development model, according to Microsoft managers and partners.

For example, Microsoft customers can oversee Linux servers with Microsoft's management software, and they will eventually be able to run Linux and Windows on the same machine--a startling change from previous policies. Over the past year, Microsoft has also released a number of development tools with their source code--a practice the company said it intends to continue and expand.

To be sure, the moves are more self-serving than philosophical. By accommodating open source, Microsoft endears itself to potential corporate customers, notably software developers, and it better understands its open-source competitors.

Ballmer has even changed the rhetoric: "We compete with products. We don't compete with movements," he said in a recent interview.

Getting a handle on open source
Many industry pundits contend that open source poses the biggest competitive threat Microsoft has ever encountered. The model of making software freely available and allowing changes to the source code hasn't yet radically altered some products, such as Microsoft's powerful desktop software franchise.

"They've been supportive in many ways. To be competitive, they have to adapt to the changing landscape."
--Shaun Walker,
software engineer
But the impact of open source on the software infrastructure arena, including server and programming software, has been dramatic. Linux server revenue is growing faster than Windows, according to research firm IDC, while the server middleware and tools market is following the path set by Linux adoption.

Microsoft responded to Linux specifically with its "Get the Facts" campaign in 2003, which looks to quantify the overall cost, or total cost of ownership, of freely available Linux software versus Windows Server.

In its product development, Microsoft has segmented the areas where Linux, as well as other products, such as the Apache Web server, are strong and has sought to match those offerings' features head-on.

These more measured competitive tactics stand in contrast to the reaction Microsoft executives displayed a few years ago as Linux's popularity grew.

In 2001, chairman Bill Gates, for example, cautioned against the "Pac-Man-like nature" of the general public license (GPL), which is used with Linux and many other freely available open-source products.

Since then, however, the open-source industry has matured and become more commercial, which has helped crystallize who Microsoft's competitors are. Instead of combating the Linux and open-software "movement," Microsoft can now target established companies, such as Red Hat, Novell or MySQL.

"We've moved from being more emotional and more reactive," said

Martin Taylor, general manager of Microsoft's platform strategy, who was tapped in 2003 to create a more "fact-based" competitive reaction to Linux. "Part of that is having a phenomenal line of sight. When you're driving in the fog and you don't know what's ahead, you're maybe more on edge."

With Linux widely installed among its corporate clients, Microsoft has chosen to accommodate it rather than ignore it.

"We've moved from being more emotional and more reactive. Part of that is having a phenomenal line of sight. When you're driving in the fog and you don't know what's ahead, you're maybe more on edge."
--Martin Taylor,
general manager,
Microsoft's platform strategy
Earlier this year, the company said that its management software would be able to keep track of both Windows and Linux machines, and its forthcoming "hypervisor" virtualization software will be able to run Linux and other x86-compatible operating systems.

There are other indications that Microsoft is learning to live with Linux and open source.

According to sources, Ballmer met with Matthew Szulick, CEO of Linux distributor Red Hat, in New York earlier this year, though neither company has acknowledged the meeting.

Microsoft has hired a number of programmers who have a high profile in open-source circles, including Gentoo founder Daniel Robbins, who joined the company last month under Bill Hilf to help Microsoft development teams understand open-source development. Another employee, Jim Hugunin, is working on the IronPython project to support the Python scripting language--popular among open-source Web developers--in Microsoft's .Net software.

Indeed, as open-source development products, such as Eclipse or the so-called LAMP stack, become more widely used, Microsoft cannot afford to ignore them. The application written with open-source tooling can lead to more Windows sales, for example.

"We understand ways that have to support the (open-source) community as well," Michael Werner, director of the emerging business team for Microsoft in New England, said at a recent conference on open source. "We have a vested interest if a MySQL (open-source database) developer is developing on our platform--we want to make sure it's a successful interaction."

"Allergic reaction"
Still, there are no illusions that Microsoft management has embraced the economic model of open source or that the company's hard-charging competitive ways have slackened.

"Microsoft is now interacting more with the open-source community, which is good, but at the same time, they're doing it along with protecting their core markets and environments," said David Patrick, vice president and general manager of Novell's Linux, open-source platforms and services group.

Patrick noted that Microsoft is interoperating with Linux and other third-party platforms. But that work doesn't involve deep technical integration.

On the licensing front, too, Microsoft's fortunes rely on a proprietary approach. Yet, through its "shared source" initiative, in the past year it has released a handful of development-related products under open-source licenses, including Windows Installer XML toolset (WiX), which the company says has been downloaded by almost 150,000 people from SourceForge.net.

Open-source practices are particularly important in the realm of software development where a community of active users can be far more effective than traditional marketing efforts. And programmers, who can influence the decision of big-ticket server software to run business applications, have shown a liking for free tools and the ability to see how they work.

"In the past, there wasn't a sense of community in the Microsoft world," said DotNetNuke developer Walker, who is president and CEO of Perpetual Motion Interaction Systems. "It took longer to emerge than the LAMP community, which came together more quickly."

Indeed, the IT industry's largest companies--IBM, Sun Microsystems, Novell, Hewlett-Packard--have all sought to harness or sponsor open-source projects to curry favor with developers and take advantage of Linux.

Some company observers contend that there is a split within the ranks of Microsoft over how to approach open source. The company remains deeply committed--financially and philosophically--to a proprietary software model.

"It's a culture around, 'Look, you can't tell us we're wrong, because look at how successful we are with packaged software.' So you protect your intellectual property at all costs. You don't share it--you license," said former Microsoft employee Stephen Walli, now vice president of open-source development strategy at services company Optaros.

In 2003, Walli met with Microsoft's head of Windows development, Jim Allchin, in an effort to convince Allchin to distribute an open-source product. Even though he understood the potential benefits, Allchin "couldn't take that step" because the product would have been shipped with every copy of Windows, Walli said.

Miguel De Icaza knows about mixing open-source practices with Microsoft products. He is the lead developer of Mono, an open-source development environment based on Microsoft's .Net software.

De Icaza said Microsoft's shifting stance on open source is pragmatic. After management realized that Linux was not going to upend its business entirely, the company adjusted its strategy.

"You can tell they are learning--Microsoft is not a stupid company," said De Icaza. "They had an allergic reaction to open source...I think it's a wound that needed to heal."