Microsoft + Open Source: Too good to be true?

Does Microsoft want to become open source's new best friend? It may not get that cozy, but Bill Hilf, director of platform technology strategy, thinks there is a lot his company can learn from "the movement."

Who would have thought Microsoft today would have such tight connections with the open source community? In just one year, Microsoft has locked up collaborative deals with JBoss Inc. and SugarCRM Inc., and recently the company embraced Linux support in virtualized environments.

Bill Hilf, Microsoft's director of platform technology strategy, is charging ahead by looking for ways his company can work with open source that he says are beneficial to all. At LinuxWorld Conference & Expo - Boston 2006 last week, Hilf said Microsoft is launching a Web site solely for the purpose of communicating Microsoft's own open source activities. He spoke with SearchWinIT.com's news director Margie Semilof about Microsoft's activities in community development.

SearchWinIT.com: So how far does Microsoft plan to go in its support for open source?
Bill Hilf:
Fundamentally, we are a commercial software company and we have a model that is profitable for us. We see no need to change that because it works well. Now, if you look at the business success of open source and ask if [companies] are successful, the only [company] that has broken out of the mold is Red Hat, and even its revenue is only about $200 million.

There is a bit of irony that a Microsoft guy
is giving a keynote at LinuxWorld.
I didn't ask to do it.

Bill Hilf,

So, there is the movement and the reality of doing business.

Some commercial open source players are finding out that the only way to make money is not just by selling support for commodity components, which has been the general model. You actually have to differentiate. At the end of the day, all the open source software comes from the same [source code].

What aspects of the movement do you think are beneficial?
Hilf: One is the phenomena of community development. But you don't necessarily get good development. I'm a horrible programmer and people have used my stuff. It's not always about quality of code but affinity. People feel closer to the software when they work on it. They have a connection to the software, even if they're just sitting on an e-mail list listening in. There must be something on the community movement side that we can use.

Can Microsoft succeed in this if the community considers a commercial entity evil?
Hilf: Sometimes you will have people who hate us because we are successful. That is going to happen. We find the only way to [work with open source] is to be 101% transparent about what we are doing. Any questions or motivational concerns or conspiracy theories will be transparent. And some people will still hate us, but you've got to try.

In this vein, we are announcing a way for [Microsoft's] open source people to communicate with the open source community. We are opening up the doors of our lab for people to look and to give us ideas on what we are trying to do. I'll do an interview on Slashdot and get some nasty e-mail. But then I'll get hundreds of messages that are supportive. People won't say this [publicly], but they will say it in the back channel. We want to get the people who are in the middle -- not the tried and true Microsoft guys or the crazy zealots.

Microsoft's attitude about working with open source software sure has shifted in a few short years.
Hilf: Most people at this [LinuxWorld] conference have to go back to their day jobs and make a decision or think about getting open source to work on Windows. The more we make the stuff work together, the greater business opportunity we have. We will not succeed in the enterprise if we are purely Microsoft.

Where is today's leadership coming from in the open source movement? Are the important open source decision makers now from commercial entities?
Hilf: I've been at every LinuxWorld since 1999 when it started in the U.S. Back then the keynote was Linus Torvalds, and sessions were super deep technical stuff about how to configure your kernel. The panel was Linus, Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond. Now look who is on a panel. It's MySQL, JBoss, SugarCRM. It's all the business guys who have commercialized open source.

I think there has been a change. Most CIOs don't really want to make decisions based on philosophy. There is no discussion that 'all software must be free because I believe in the movement.' So, it is to the betterment of the open source community that it has matured.

This is not to say that those guys weren't important. They are. Linus [Torvalds] is different. He is fundamentally concerned about just engineering the Linux kernel. He does not want to be a spokesman for open source. Whereas other people love to carry that mantel.

You've recently taken on the whole of Microsoft's open source activities in the company's recent reorganization, correct?
Hilf: When Martin Taylor [former general manager of platform strategy] went to run the Windows Live marketing group, we moved the marketing team, the shared-source initiative and the technical lab into one core group. So now, anything relating to open source is in one center spot. This lets us think more holistically about open source.

There is a bit of irony that a Microsoft guy is giving a keynote at LinuxWorld. I didn't ask to do it. They said this is what the marketplace now looks like. It sure didn't look like this 10 years ago. Open source has commercialized from soup to nuts. And [Microsoft's] organizational change reflects that. Sometimes we will compete head-to-head [with open source] and sometimes we will have an opportunity to get together and do deals like JBoss and SugarCRM, and all the work my technical team does with interoperability.

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