Microsoft shows off open source 'cred' at LinuxWorld

What a difference a few years make! While Microsoft and Linux devotees have had a relationship akin to the one between Dean Wormer and Delta House in "Animal House," things are changing. At LinuxWorld 2005, you're likely to see more ties, fewer tees and a more sympathetic Microsoft.

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At a busy LinuxWorld conference, Microsoft's top open source executives continue their challenging work of making sure the software company's own message gets heard over the din of open source exuberance.

Microsoft's feelings about Linux and open source have made a well-chronicled shift during the past three years, roughly around the time that the company became a regular participant at LinuxWorld, which is in San Francisco this week.

Microsoft knows that Linux isn't going anywhere, said Ryan Gavin, director of platform strategy at Microsoft. "It will be our competitor for a long time to come, and we will compete vigorously," Gavin said.

The industry certainly has grown quite a bit. This year, the youthful excitement of the early days in the open source community is more toned down. The conference suggests a business atmosphere, Gavin said. "Not just geeks, but suits and ties. It's a commercial discussion," he said.

And another big difference over several years ago? Gavin said he thinks IT managers are more educated about the differences between Windows platforms and open source products and technologies.

Microsoft executive Bill Hilf, director of platform technology strategy, was on hand at LinuxWorld as well to describe some of his own experiences with Unix, Linux and Windows interoperability. In a session, he discussed the pros and cons of open source.

Hilf comes armed with open source credentials. He formerly led IBM's Linux technical strategy and has years of involvement with open source software. Now he heads up an open source research and development organization within Microsoft that includes running a Linux lab. He is also a former senior engineering director at eToys Direct Inc.

In the past several years, Microsoft has learned from the communal aspects of the open source movement and has incorporated this knowledge into its own software development process. Gavin cited Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative and activity on SourceForge.net as two examples.

Microsoft is looking at developing a hybrid model, choosing the technologies that will exist in an open source mode and the ones that will remain commercial. Other software companies -- such as IBM, Sun and Novell -- have taken a similar approach. "It's a good model," Gavin said. "The only time [software vendors] get into trouble is when they are extreme."

Gavin said there is evidence that the initial rush to open source software may have reached a plateau. Microsoft has seen a slew of customers that installed Linux and then proceeded to run into issues involving reliability and scalability. These customers are migrating back to Windows, he said.

When problems are more rooted in such practical considerations, it makes the comparison between the Linux and Windows platforms one of apples to apples. "We feel good about how we fare [in that situation]," Gavin said.

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