PORTLAND, Ore.—Microsoft has recommitted to working with the open-source community, even submitting its Shared Source License to the Open Source Initiative for approval as an approved license for sharing code.
Bill Hilf, head of Microsoft open-source strategy, spoke at the OReilly Open Source Convention here on July 26 and acknowledged that Microsofts relationship with the open-source community has at times been schizophrenic, but that the company has had good intentions.
“Today were submitting these projects to the OSI to get them into the approval process,” Hilf said. “Weve got some good results, but weve just scratched the surface of what we can do. Where were going in the future with our software and services, the opportunity for Microsoft to work with open source is tremendous.”
Hilf said people ask him if all of Microsoft is on the same page in the companys push to work with open source.
“We are,” he said. “Theres not some switch that Bill Gates has in the basement that he switches from left to right to move the company.”
In addition to the news about the submission to OSI, Hilf said Microsoft has created a new open-source Web site to show how the company hopes to participate, partner, grow and learn to interact with the open-source community. “The framework behind this weve been growing for three years.”
Hilf, who is balding, said when he joined Microsoft 3 and a half years ago he had a full afro hair style.
“I look forward to being a change agent,” he said. “I get called everything from the Great Satan to the little boy with his finger in the dike to a change agent.”
When asked about the controversy over Microsofts claims that free and open-source software violates more than 200 of the companys patents, Hilf said, “We made a mistake in the way we managed that. If I had my way Id change it. All the tiles on my human heat shield were hot from the fallout around that.”
Moreover, Hilf said, “that article [that covered Microsofts position on patents] was extremely aggressive and made us look like a draconian, racketeering…” As Hilf paused to think of another word, an audience member shouted out: “predatory,” to the applause of the audience.
“I immediately did an interview saying that what that article represents is not the path we are on,” Hilf said. “We announced our deal with Novell and there were a lot of people who saw the good in that, though there were some who didnt agree,” he said.
However, Hilf said, “software patents are tough and I actually wrote some at IBM. I believe in the concept of intellectual property. There is a lot of work to raise the bar on how we think about patents and intellectual property.”
Rod Johnson, CEO of Interface21, based in West Melbourne, Fla., the maker of the open-source Spring Framework, said one of the problems with companies that work to create their own licenses is that they tend to migrate to their own licenses after finding a way to legitimize them.
“The problem is the complexity of how to reconcile one with another,” he said. However, he said Microsofts move toward the OSI is suggestive of “the fact that Microsoft realizes open source is here to stay and theyre going to have to deal with it.”
Advocates Welcome Microsoft Overtures
Eric Newcomer, chief technology officer of Iona Technologies, based in Waltham, Mass., said, “its a good sign that Microsoft is trying to reach out to the open-source community and start to take more of an active role. Microsoft is obviously concerned with the impact of open source on its operating system and office businesses, and has taken a number of steps in the past to engage with open-source communities.”
However, “Id say a lot of suspicion remains in the open-source community about Microsofts motives, and anti-Microsoft sentiments are a frequent source of motivation for open-source folks,” Newcomer said.
“However, Microsoft is above all a practical and market-driven company that obviously recognizes it needs to do more to provide the kinds of benefits their customers see in open source, and an OSI-approved license would seem like a very positive step for them—assuming they can get it, of course,” Newcomer said.
Microsofts move “is a welcome step,” said Simon Phipps, chief open-source officer at Sun Microsystems, headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif. “I hope they engage with the community to correct defects in their license if and when they are identified on the mailing list, like all other companies submitting licenses,” Phipps said.
Zack Urlocker, executive vice president of products at open source database giant MySQL, headquartered in Uppsala, Sweden, said, “Its great that Microsoft is working closely with the OSI to support unfettered access to source code with an OSI-compliant open-source license. Microsoft has made many good contributions to open source and this should pave the way for even more. Its good to see Microsoft working with such open-source products, including PHP, MySQL, SugarCRM, JBoss and others.”
Moreover, Urlocker said, “Its clear that there are many Windows users who are operating in a mixed-environment in which open source is part of their overall IT strategy.”
Hilf said his team is working to deliver the architecture of participation. “Were creating the DNA inside Microsoft to interact with open source,” he said. Hilf gave a brief history of Microsofts experience with open source, including the release of the Shared Source CLR (Common Language Runtime) code-named Rotor, and the opening of the open-source software labs.
“Back in those days, when we were talking about open source, people were terrified,” Hilf said. “One guy asked me if it was OK to look at a Linux Web site.”
Then Microsoft created its CodePlex community site, began a collaboration with JBoss and more recently delivered IronPython, IronRuby and the Dynamic Language Runtime, “all under very liberal licenses.”
Moreover, Hilf said there are more than 1,800 CodePlex projects, more than 77,000 Microsoft-related SourceForge projects, 1 million lines of open-source-related code on the Microsoft Developer Network and 558 Shared Source Licenses, as well as open-source efforts in Microsoft Research.
Microsoft has a strategy of “Community, Collaboration and Code” when it comes to interacting with open source, Hilf said. “Code is the most important element.”