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.
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.
Bridging the Divide
That being said, the company also believes in a bridge that scales the divide, which is workable and scalable. But that is a bridge that needs to be built, even if it is hard, and that process started with Novell through the deal struck in late 2006, Smith said.
“Is the bridge finished? Is it perfect? No, there is a lot of room for more dialogue between us,” Smith said, adding that compromises were made on both sides. “We all believe in the magic of software, and there is a lot we can achieve together if we look one another in the eye and talk honestly about what we can achieve together.”
During the hourlong question-and-answer session, Smith said interoperability is not a one-size-fits-all matter, and even said that Microsoft loves open-source software running on Windows.
However, he dismissed what he sees as suggestions that the company should either make its patent licensing agreements expensive or give them away for free. “I don’t believe that or buy into it,” he said.
Asked when Microsoft had stopped viewing Linux and open source as a cancer and un-American-sentiments previously expressed by its top executives-Smith said one of the challenges with the world today is that while we live with caricatures, people are not caricatures.
“The world and people evolve, you get better informed, and you want that. You do not want people to stay within those caricatures. I don’t think you have heard anyone at Microsoft talking in those terms of late. We are trying to have a constructive dialogue and take steps to sort out some of our differences, as we all benefit from that,” he said.
While Microsoft is unafraid to speak out, Smith said he hopes it will also become a better listener.