Microsoft Lawyer Faces a Community Grilling

Brad Smith admits the company has not always been as friendly to the open community as it could have been.

SAN FRANCISCO-Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith took the hot seat at the Open Source Development Conference here March 25, facing an hour of questioning from panelists and attendees.

But before the grilling started, Smith gave a 30-minute address about the parallels between open-source and proprietary software business models.

Microsoft respects and appreciates the role free and open-source software has in the industry and the hard work done by its developers, Smith said. "This is not what you have always heard from us, but I wanted to say it," he said.

There are three fundamental business models in the industry today: direct monetization, indirect monetization and open source, and there will be a number of business models going forward. "There is room for all of them," he said.

Turning to the controversial issues of interoperability, Smith said there is no historic example where the market leader pushed interoperability forward. While Microsoft has been on both sides of that fence many times, interoperability is a leading issue now as it is being driven by customers who "are in charge and want us all to work better together," he said.

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The recent articulation of Microsoft's interoperability principles will guide where the company goes in the future. "I understand that people measure you by what you do, and that people will measure us by what we do. But words also matter, and we stood up and articulated what we wanted to do going forward with those principles," he said.

While a direct conversation on hard issues such as intellectual property and patents also is necessary, two engineers could solve a problem a lot faster than 1,000 lawyers, Smith said, "so let's get the engineers together."

But even after this conciliatory tone, Smith made clear that Microsoft believes in the patent system, as evidenced when company officials warned last year that free and open-source software violates 235 of its patents.

"We really do believe in the benefits that a well-functioning patent system creates when we all adhere to it," he said.

Even though Microsoft executives expressed support for patent reform in Washington and Microsoft has had more patent lawsuits filed against it than any other company, it still believes in the value of the patent system.