Keeping an open mind


29 Aug 2007

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Agreements with Novell, a Microsoft-operated Shared Source website, collaborations with open source stalwarts: what is Microsoft up to? I hope to explain Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to work with the open source community and help our customers get the most from their IT investments.

The term ‘open source’ is commonly used to represent four concepts: a model for developing software, a licensing model, a commercial model and a philosophy.

In my opinion, the most important is the development model, as open source software (OSS) is a method of developing software built by a participative community and anchored around the ability to openly share source code. Microsoft has learned from the OSS model, especially the benefits of increased community engagement and transparency with our customers through the sharing of source code.

We now have 80 projects under our Shared Source initiative and Microsoft releases one million lines of source code annually through our developer network, MSDN.

In Ireland, I have yet to be asked for the source code to any Microsoft product by a customer. It is clear that Irish customers are pragmatic and choose technology to fit the need rather than on the basis of a preference or belief.

Indeed, customers tell me that the model used during the development of software – whether it’s commercial or OSS – is less relevant than the business return and the capabilities.

While OSS was initially heralded as offering a zero-cost option to everyone’s IT needs, it’s my view that today’s OSS solutions often operate with a commercial and licensing model that looks strikingly similar to traditional commercial models.

Customers have commented to me that we appear to have changed our stance or ‘softened’ our approach towards OSS. It’s a fair observation and certainly Microsoft’s understanding of OSS has matured in recent years.

There are two factors at play: the first is the building of an OSS lab within Microsoft (you can read about it on the Port25 website http://port25.technet.com/). This is an effort to drive insightful and relevant dialogue on open source issues both within Microsoft and between Microsoft and the OSS community.

The second is that Microsoft has recognised that our customers make decisions that introduce a variety of solutions into their IT portfolio and it’s important that they interoperate. Microsoft aims to achieve interoperability by design, essentially ‘out of the box’ connectivity for customers. A key component of this is support for open standards (I often see confusion between open source – the development model, and open standards – the results of a process to establish uniform technical requirements. Both commercial and OSS can be open standards compliant).

Quality check

Microsoft is committed to open standards and is active on bodies such as ECMA, WS-I and the World Wide Web Consortium. Additionally, through our work with OSS companies we see a growing phenomenon where the Windows versions of many OSS applications are preferred.

For example, a high percentage of JBoss, SugarCRM or MySQL installations are running on Windows. Microsoft has been working directly with these groups to ensure that their applications run smoothly on Windows.

In November 2006 Microsoft and Novell announced an agreement to collaborate on making their respective products work better together.

Some question the bona fides of Microsoft entering into such an agreement. In my opinion the Novell agreement is a high-profile example of our ongoing effort to build bridges between Microsoft and the OSS community.

Regarding commentary on intellectual property issues: Microsoft believes the commercial software industry is built on intellectual property; without it none of today’s successful technology companies would be able to continue the cycle of innovation and development.

Finally, you may wonder if Microsoft is somehow changing its approach to competing or if we are ultimately on a path to an open source model for our Windows or Office software. The answer is no. We compete with the products of the OSS community just like we do with those of other commercial software suppliers and we will always advocate to our customers the benefits of our solutions over others.

We believe in the commercial model of software development: without it there would be no SAP, Oracle, Adobe or Microsoft. More importantly we believe the commercial model offers our customers the best technology and sustains an ecosystem, in the case of Microsoft, of 750,000 regional system integration and 20,000 software companies targeting our platform.

The increase in interest in OSS has been constructive for our industry and focuses minds on what is important from an IT solution. Ultimately OSS and commercial software will co-exist and this will drive competition and choice to the benefit of our customers.

By Bill O’Brien, platform strategy manager, Microsoft Ireland