But dont expect to see an open-sourced version of Windows any time soon. Microsoft is making nice with its open-source adversaries, while continuing to defend its rights to hold and use its arsenal of software patents.
At a recent conference sponsored by the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT) in Cambridge, Md., Brad Smith, Microsofts general counsel, called for bridge building between Microsoft, its competitors and the open-source community.
"In the world of software development today there is a broad panoply of software development models," Smith said.
"Were going to have to figure out how to build some bridges between the various parts of our industry," he continued. "Were going to have to figure out how we can bring the various parts of our industry closer together. Not necessarily in the sense of changing the way software is developed, but building bridges so that we all have the ability to collaborate with each other. And that will mean we will need some new rotations, I think, in how we work together, in how we license, in how we share technology or intellectual property rights with each other."
One open-source community leader said this was the first conciliatory statement to come out of Redmond, Wash., where Microsoft is headquartered.
Larry Rosen, former general counsel for the Open Source Initiative and a leading open-source supporter who was present for Smiths speech, said, "Im pleased to hear requests for bridge building, and I have been open to it all along. And I think its important that the entire IT industry—both the proprietary side and the open, free software side—at least understands each others positions better, if not actually come to compromises that allow both sides, and I hate to use the word sides but I think it would be very helpful to everyone to engage in dialogue."
In an interview following his keynote, Smith told eWEEK: "First you have to start with some dialogue. We are now interested in it, and wed like to do this. I think well find weve got a lot more in common than we realize, and I think there are many of us who would like to meet."
Meanwhile, Rosen said, "I would like to see that they engage in an intellectually thorough discussion where we actually prove the points that hes making or the points were making about the value and utility of software patents, rather than simply make the assumption and jump to the conclusion that reform is needed. ... The test is going to be when we engage in that dialogue are we really going to sit at the table and put things on the table and figure out how to reach some form of compromise? We did that over a three year period with the W3C [World Wide Web Consortium]."
Rosen noted that the open-source community helped the World Wide Web Consortium develop a royalty-free intellectual property policy and is working with the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Systems (OASIS) and would like to work with Microsoft in the same way. In fact, Rosen said he would like to see the software industry do away with software patents altogether.
Richard Wilder, a patent attorney and partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, said of Smiths comments, "For the kinds of bridges hes talking about, I think you need a problem to be solved and then you can work from there."
Eric Raymond, a Malvern, Pa.-based open-source community leader and consultant to Sun Microsystems Inc. on the companys move to open-source Solaris, said he too welcomes the conciliatory tone from Microsoft.
"Nobody in the open-source world expects Microsoft to open-source their core products; given their business model that would be insane," Raymond said.
"But, realistically, they could do some important things. One, open up their file formats. That is, fully document things like the Microsoft Word and Windows Media formats, and make a binding promise not to sue people who write software to interoperate with them," he said. "Two, put down the patent weapon. Do as IBM has, and offer their software patents under royalty-free, paperwork-free license to open-source projects. Three, support open technical standards, rather than sabotaging them. Microsoft has a history of destructive meddling at organizations like the IETF and W3C, and of attempting to hijack standards like Kerberos by making them dependent on proprietary extensions. Simply not doing this would be a huge improvement."