Is Microsoft Irrelevant?

At OSCON, a top software architect questions Microsoft's relevance as Linux and open source march on into the enterprise and the overall computing landscape.

Is Microsoft irrelevant?

That's what Brian Aker, director of architecture at Sun Microsystems' MySQL, called the software giant in an onstage Q&A during the opening day of keynotes and sessions at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention here July 23.

Aker's response came to a question from O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly, who asked Aker and Michael "Monty" Widenius, founder of MySQL AB and author of the MySQL server, a series of questions, including their views on several leading companies in the computer industry. When it came to Microsoft, Aker replied that "Microsoft is irrelevant."

O'Reilly chuckled at the response and offered a bit of an apology to any in the audience from Microsoft. After all, Microsoft is a top-level Diamond Sponsor of OSCON this year.

There is a specific context to Aker's remark, and he did not get an opportunity to elaborate. Perhaps he meant that Microsoft is irrelevant in regard to open source. Yet, by force of its intellectual property, user base, installed base, shareholders and market cap, among many other things, Microsoft remains clearly relevant in today's industry, although it is no secret that many Microsoft competitors would like to render the company irrelevant.

Tim Bray, director of Web technology at Sun, which bought MySQL six months ago, also chuckled about Aker's comment when asked about it in an interview with eWEEK. Bray said Sun for a long time has made-and continues to, make-a major push to interoperate with the overall Microsoft, Windows and .Net environments, and that the companies have worked together at this for some time.

"They're not irrelevant; we have to work with Microsoft," he said. "Too many of our customers demand it." Yes, and lawsuits, settlements and consent decrees have also come into play, along with the general tide of the business.

I recall the stories from 2004, when a weary Sun employee working a weekend at one of the Sun buildings came across Microsoft's Bill Gates in the hallway. Gates was down in Silicon Valley at the behest of Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos as the two companies began to try to work out issues. As I also recall, that era was also marked by a $2 billion payment by Microsoft to Sun.

So the companies have worked together when and where necessary, and although Bray said Microsoft remains relevant in the industry, it's not the same scary company it used to be. "Microsoft used to do things that were exciting and that really made the industry take notice; they really haven't done anything like that in a while," he said. "They don't scare me like they used to."

Part of that may be by design. Well, not that Microsoft is rolling over. But Sam Ramji's group is tasked with seeing that Microsoft plays well with other environments, including open-source technology.

Ramji is scheduled to deliver a keynote at OSCON July 25. According to his show bio:

""Sam Ramji is the Senior Director of Platform Strategy leading Microsoft's platform strategy efforts across the company, including long-term strategic planning in the Windows Server and Tools organization. Sam's primary focus is to drive Microsoft's Linux and Open Source Strategy, working together with Microsoft technology development teams and open source communities to build interoperable solutions.""

In an interview with eWEEK, Ramji cited many of the same issues as Bray, including: Microsoft's work on interoperability with Sun, Novell, IBM and others; the steps Microsoft has taken with its Shared Source effort and more permissive licensing; the work that Ramji's lab has done; and steps like working with the Eclipse Foundation, gaining OSI (Open Source Initiative) license approval, and supporting open-source projects on CodePlex.

In addition, Microsoft's hiring moves have reflected a move toward more "open"-minded individuals. For instance Hamilton Verissimo de Oliveira, founder of the Castle Project, recently said he will join Microsoft as project manager of the MEF (Managed Extensibility Framework) team. MEF provides developers with a tool to easily add extensibility to their applications and with minimal impact on existing code. The Castle Project is an open-source project for .Net that is aimed at simplifying the development of enterprise and Web applications. In any event, Verissimo de Oliveira joins a slew of other recent and not-so-recent hires from the open-source and open source-friendly worlds, including John Lam and Jim Hugunin, who lead Microsoft's IronRuby and IronPython efforts, respectively.

Ramji acknowledged Microsoft's move to hire more people with Linux and open-source experience. "I grew up in Oakland in an area that was a melting pot," he said. "It takes all kinds to make this work and we understand that."

Asked how he would characterize Microsoft's efforts in the open-source community thus far, whether they could be considered "baby steps" or entry-level moves, Ramji said: "If you know football, we're at the 30 yard line." I then asked whose 30, and Ramji said, "We have 70 yards to go."

Microsoft is indeed learning as it goes. Witness a recent incident where the company had to pull the Sandcastle open-source project from its community site only to later put it back up on its CodePlex site.

So if Microsoft is on its own 30 yard line, we'll have to see what awaits in the end zone and what kind of "defense" the software giant will have to play through to get there.