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A Microsoft-Red Hat warming trend?

CEOs Steve Ballmer and Matthew Szulik met for a meal recently, sources say. How's Microsoft feeling about open source these days?

The chief executives of Microsoft and Red Hat held a private meeting in New York, CNET News.com has learned, an indication that relations between the rivals might be warming.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and Red Hat's Matthew Szulik met for more than an hour at a McCormick & Schmick's restaurant in New York in late March, sources familiar with the situation said. Microsoft initiated the meeting, one source indicated.

Red Hat declined to comment for this story. But Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, although not commenting on the Ballmer-Szulik get-together, said in an interview Monday that Microsoft is interested in meeting with open-source companies.

"There are some of those (open source) players that are looking at commercial-type revenues. We'll certainly spend time with those people to see what we have in common and what we can do for customers together," Gates said. However, he added, "I wouldn't say that there is some big, new development."

Microsoft generally favors proprietary software whose underlying source code is a closely controlled secret. Red Hat, on the other hand, supports open-source programming, in which source code may be freely seen, modified and redistributed by anyone. The company's chief product, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, is arguably the most successful example of an open-source project being packaged for commercial sale.

Microsoft has shown no signs of losing its aggressive competitiveness, but it has been willing to work with rivals of late. One notable example was a detente with Sun Microsystems in April 2004 that settled Sun's antitrust suit and led to deals to share patents and make sure that the companies' products interoperate.

Microsoft also has settled antitrust matters with software maker Burst.com, Novell and Time Warner's America Online.

Open-source software efforts once were a fringe phenomenon, chiefly of interest to students and technical experts. Now, however, several open-source projects have become forces to be reckoned with, often having a corporation backing them.

Projects that compete directly with Microsoft's products include not just server software such as Apache, MySQL and JBoss, but also include desktop software such as OpenOffice.org.

Meetings between competitors' high-level executives aren't unheard-of. But Microsoft and Red Hat aren't just competitors for selling operating systems--they also are opposed on the issue of software philosophy.

Even though Microsoft has embraced the ideas of having an active developer community, it has long criticized the General Public License that underlies Linux. In some cases, executives have called it "Pac-Man-like" and a "cancer." The license requires that software derived from a GPL program also be covered by the GPL, a provision Microsoft and others have termed "viral."

Despite some attacks on open-source programming, Microsoft has tried to take a more conciliatory stance in recent years. It has tried instead to argue that open-source software is inferior to its own products on the basis of cost, features and legal protections through its "Get the Facts" campaign.

Red Hat hasn't pulled any punches either.

In a 2001 speech, Red Hat's chief technology officer at the time, Michael Tiemann, disparaged Microsoft's shared-source initiative, which aims to emulate some of the principles of the open-source and free-software movements but that often doesn't give programmers as many rights to source code.

"It is not so much a license, I think, as it is a treaty crafted by executives trying to buy time while they quiet the internal rebellion that is Microsoft's own civil war," Tiemann said.

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