Cracking Open the Door to Open Source

Microsoft veers toward the light in its new approach to open source.

When Bill Hilf came from IBM Corp. to join Microsoft three years ago, the company's stance on open source vacillated wildly. It would swing from outright indifference to overt nastiness. Today, something else is unfolding: Microsoft is striking a surprising balance. It has stopped dismissing open source licensing and community development as dangerous folly or evil foe, and is looking for a way to both compete and co-exist.

Let's start with Hilf. Under his direction as general manager of platform strategy, Microsoft is crafting a multifaceted plan to approach open source from a number of different levels: Linux as an operating system competitor; interoperability with Linux in mixed environments; partnering with open source ISVs; development of Shared Source Licensing; contributions to and support for community development sites.

"It does seem to me that Microsoft is trying," says Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. "Bill Hilf seems to be trying to figure out how to get the advantages of the open source development methodology. And there's no question that one of the lessons of Vista development is that companies have to evolve their process of engineering. Microsoft needs to look at their processes and borrow best practices from anywhere they can get them."

Hilf's work around interoperability may be best exhibited within the Open Source Software lab at Microsoft that tests its products in every conceivable environment. The lab is currently running 30 to 40 different Linux distributions. Hilf also heads up Shared Source Licensing, which represents Microsoft's approximation (that's a generous assessment) of a GPL-type license model by providing IT administrators and developers access to source code to test and review. This helps organizations make internal application fixes, do security evaluations and ensure interoperability with their own environments.

More importantly, Hilf has worked to bridge the gap between Microsoft -- Public Enemy No. 1 -- and the open source community. He has evangelized at LinuxWorld shows and shown a willingness to embrace some aspects of the development model and its proponents. Internally at Microsoft, he's tried to strip out some of the negativity that permeates the hallways whenever open source comes up -- not an easy thing to do.

There's more evidence that Microsoft knows open source is here to stay. Think of the major alliances with open source companies. No one overlooked the unlikely bedfellows resulting from the Microsoft and Novell alliance (ostensibly done to ensure Linux interoperability, better support and IP infringement protection). Also consider the swath of technical partnerships with the likes of JBoss (now owned by Red Hat Inc.) and open source applications players like SugarCRM Inc. and Zend Technologies Ltd.

Whether a new day has dawned is still up for debate. There are plenty of skeptics, but under Hilf's direction Microsoft is a far cry from the days when president and CEO Steve Ballmer publicly declared Linux a "cancer" that would eat away at intellectual property rights in the industry. Nevertheless, no one thinks Microsoft is going all touchy-feely on open source. Microsoft isn't pondering whether to open source Windows, but rather, as Hilf describes, how to find a way to tie SharePoint into some cool open source thing customers seem to like, for example.

"Some people think that we're doing these deals to appear more 'friendly' and that's not it at all," says Hilf, with refreshing candor, as anyone who has spent time getting information out of Microsoft will tell you. "It's all about growing our business. And the dirty little secret here is that most customers of open source run it on Windows first."

He points to JBoss, for example, which does approximately half of its open source application server implementations on Windows OSes. "It's common sense for them to partner with us."

Bill Hilf, General Manager of Platform Strategy, Microsoft

Common sense sums up a lot here. As one of the new faces inside Microsoft, Hilf, along with Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie and a raft of like-minded internal developers, is decidedly less black and white about open source and other software business models, including Software as a Service. Ozzie, for one, is bullish on Microsoft's Live services initiatives, and Hilf is helping to oversee such initiatives as CodePlex, a Microsoft-backed Web site much like SourceForge where developers can post open source community projects.

What's a driving factor in this kinder, gentler attitude? Commercialization. Microsoft isn't the only one knocking on the open source door -- Oracle has plans to offer support for Red Hat's Linux customers, and Sun Microsystems' goal is to reorient its business to embrace open source tenets.

As Hilf tells it, commercial open source companies today are just another part of the generic application ecosystem. The only difference is how they license their software. How the software is implemented or supported by the vendors isn't much different from everybody else in the industry. This reality has accelerated Microsoft's interoperability efforts. And those efforts, according to Cherry, are aimed primarily at facilitating sales.

"Microsoft is very concerned about that, wanting to remove all barriers to the sales process," he says. "It's about not allowing an enterprise to defer deployment of Microsoft technology because they have some Linux they are concerned won't work with Longhorn Server."

This is driving classic co-opetition between Microsoft and open source ISVs as well. Part of Microsoft's strategy in embracing these open source companies -- even if they have applications that compete with such products as Microsoft CRM or any of the Dynamics lineup -- is chiefly because it helps sell a lot of Microsoft platform infrastructure. If a whole new slate of open source apps is spurring license sales of Windows OSes, SQL Server, IIS, MOM or Active Directory, you can bet Hilf's happy.

"Do I really care if it's open source or not if it sells our infrastructure?" he asks rhetorically.

One user agrees that open source development is evolving into a model of many flavors, not just one based on a free-software utopia. Paula Bach of the Computer-Supported Collaboration and Learning Lab at Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology notes that "the spirit of open source now moves along a continuum from ideologically driven to profit-driven."

Finding a business case for open source alliances is certainly driving Microsoft. SugarCRM is one of those ISVs that decided to work with Redmond developers after Hilf approached them with an initial proposal in late 2005. As a result, the open source CRM software company inked a technical partnership with Microsoft that optimizes its applications on top of Microsoft infrastructure. The reason they did it? Customer demand.

"We run on Unix, Solaris, Linux, FreeBSD, etc., but a large number of our customers like to run applications on Windows and SQL Server," says John Roberts, chairman and CEO of SugarCRM. "People at first [said], 'Oh my god they are partnering with Microsoft.' But if you think about it, no one really owns open source."

Roberts says his team has weekly calls with Hilf's team and Microsoft product people, and so far have subsequently developed FastStack Installers that pre-bundle SugarCRM with SQL Server Express, IIS and Active Directory. The company's plans this summer call for certifying the forthcoming SugarCRM 5.0 version on Vista. They've also posted SugarCRM source code onto Microsoft's CodePlex site to be redistributed by the community at large.

CodePlex has captured a lot of attention both inside and outside Microsoft. Developers are able to collaborate on open source projects, contribute projects of their own and get feedback and help from Microsoft developers around .NET and other tools. For some users, especially those interested in open source projects for Windows servers, it has become an alternative landing spot to SourceForge.

Aras Corp., which makes business applications for project management, product management and quality compliance, recently announced it was open sourcing all of its applications. They run exclusively on the Microsoft platform. The result has been dubbed Microsoft Enterprise Open Source. Customers must still license Windows servers and other infrastructure in the traditional way, but can download and run the Aras apps for free. They can also modify them while Aras provides consulting and support services.

As part of this initiative, Aras also made the code for the applications available on CodePlex. "Microsoft has quietly embraced the open source process," says Peter Schroer, president of Aras, in Lawrence, Mass. "And with CodePlex, anyone can download, modify and take those changes back to the community on that site."

Deciphering Microsoft's Shared Source Licenses

Microsoft Permissive License (Ms-PL) - Least restrictive of the licenses. Licensees may view, modify and redistribute the source code for either commercial or non-commercial purposes. They may change the source code, share it with others and charge a licensing fee for their modified work.

Microsoft Community License (Ms-CL) - Best used for collaborative development projects, with specific requirements if licensees choose to combine Ms-CL code with their own. Allows for non-commercial and commercial modification and redistribution of licensed software.

Microsoft Reference License (Ms-RL) - The Ms-RL is a reference-only license that restricts licensees to viewing source code to gain deeper understanding of the inner workings of a given technology.

Naysayers Aplenty
Before we start singing Kumbaya, let's state clearly it's inconceivable that Microsoft's efforts around open source have yet been widely greeted as sincere, altruistic or even legitimate by a large faction of the open source community.

One of the thorns in open source proponents' sides is Microsoft's Shared Source Licensing. There are three versions of these licenses, the most restrictive being the Microsoft Enterprise Source License that allows access to some Windows source code, but not modifications. The Microsoft Community License is less restrictive, allowing developers to modify code to create derived code so long as the modified files stick to their original, royalty-free license.

The main beef among open source advocates is Microsoft's refusal to put any of the licenses into the community for review and approval. Michael Tieman, president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), says the community is more than willing to assess Microsoft's licenses on their merit, just like the GPL or other open source licenses. Direct discussions have been held over the years to no avail.

"We don't want anyone claiming they are open source if they aren't," Tieman says. "Microsoft has always extended a friendly gesture to anyone willing to build on the Microsoft platform, and then kept the other hand clenched to strike if that application company becomes successful."

"When I see companies like Microsoft get into the open source arena, I see less community, less innovation, less choice and more red tape and costs," says Marianne Mason, Web administrator at Hamamatsu Corp.

Microsoft is used to such skepticism and condemnation, especially when it's accused of using its market-leading status to threaten litigation and to go after potential patent infringement violations with a vengeance. On that point, Hilf says, the facts paint a clearer picture.

"I ask those folks, 'How often has Microsoft sued over IP?' The answer is two [times]," he says. "We are not a patent troll company. We protect our IP and our licenses, but we do not want to litigate."

Tieman counters saying that while Microsoft might not sue prolifically, it knows the right way to toss its weight and voice around so that market activities are affected.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Hilf faces is changing the internal tone at Microsoft. One of the things he's worked on is convincing developers that they need to play a role in the open source process and take part in projects on CodePlex to join the so-called community. The engineers caught on right away, he said, while the sales and marketing organizations were tougher to persuade.

"Luckily, I was able to come in, in a way that gave me access to anyone in the company, and a lot of it was simple education," Hilf says. "I was really clear about what open source is and isn't."

That internal reprogramming and external outreach to the open source community has gotten high marks for Hilf and his team. The real difference in the company's open source stance today versus a few years ago is largely about tone.

"The whole tenor of the argument has changed," says Cherry. "Hilf has faith in his products' features and in a head-to-head competition he believes he's going to come out and beat them. And he's comfortable enough not to have to get into the aggressive tactics that tell customers they are stupid to go to Linux."

Microsoft has been wielding the stick. Maybe this time, the carrot is the best bet.

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Reader Comments:

Sun, Mar 18, 2007 Douz Anonymous

In the other words, Microsoft is about to join linux community by submerging itself into the heart of opensource community. Nothing much than just for their future preparation against their no. 1 enemy, Apple Co. They will have advantage with this so called alliance and of course what they really want is some of the technology embraced in the opensource community...and that's precious....after all it's business...and what I can tell is they are desperately want to win the game.

Sun, Mar 18, 2007 James K. Lowden Anonymous

It's funny you should mention SQL Server, Wesley, for two reasons. First, as a matter of fact there already is a portable version. It's called Sybase. Conversely, Microsoft licensed Sybase's code and spent the next 20 years removing the potability features. Details on request. Second, there's a portable version of SQL Server client libraries: FreeTDS. It replaces much of what Microsoft offers in terms of an API. It seems to me it's an exemplar of the kind of project Microsoft could support (as is Samba) and of course doesn't.

Wed, Mar 14, 2007 Wesley Parish Christchurch, NZ

Re: Someone from Somewhere: I for my part have suggested that Microsoft release the source code of its older software - MS Win 3.x, 9.x, NT 3.x, 4.x, MS Works 4.x, Office 9.x, Visual Basic and Cplusplus 4.x, etc, under the template Microsoft Community License as is where is, without any additional hassle-making licensing mess-ups, for the delight of students, hobbyists, and everybody who has ever had to help some elderly relative with their superannuated MS Win9x box. After all, these people are left high-and-dry under the present conditions, and Microsoft for one has already made its money from the software, while leaving those still running at the tender mercies of the Interweb scambags. Quite predictably, of course, Microsoft has done nothing of the sort. Intellectual Property Rights, they allege. Well, I allege something called "salvage" is also a property right, and it's exercised every time some poor soul spends time and energy keeping the shipping lanes free from drifting derelict shipping - and there is quite a handsome payout for such an activity. The payout I'm wanting is the source code mentioned above, so that we can start rolling back the malware scambags from those older computers.

Wed, Mar 14, 2007 W. Anderson USA

It is vital that Redmond magazine and all other technology publications with staff inexperienced in professional journalism learn to report stories factually. There is absolutely no evidence that Microsoft is "cracking open door to Open Source" - whatever that means, since Bill Hilf is not a policy changer at Microsoft, and one can only take his statements as propaganda and with a large dose of skepticism.

Anything else is pure and total naivete and ignorance on part of Redmond watchers/groupies. Most respected "open source" (sic) illuminaries and others of us who know and understand the realities of Free/Open Source Software FOSS environment and the true attitudes from Microsoft are not so gullible and stupid.

Wed, Mar 14, 2007 David Skoll Ottawa, Canada

Lee Hauser writes: "David Skoll, what are you thinking? Microsoft is a public corporation. Under American law, at least, its only purpose is to make money for its investors..."

That's fine. I run a software company and our goal too is to make money. However, we don't illegally abuse a monopoly (as Microsoft was convicted of doing.) We don't try to shove DRM down our customers' throats. We don't impose onerous EULAs on our customers. (Our proprietary software ships with source, and customers are permitted to modify it.) We don't send nastygrams from the BSA shaking down people to prove license compliance.

In short, it is possible for software companies to make money without treating their customers like criminals.

Wed, Mar 14, 2007 Someone Somewhere

Compare and contrast with the amount of effort IBM and Sun have gone to. IBM - spending billions in promoting Linux based solutions and supporting legal defense deals. Sun - releasing it's two flagship products as Free Software. Result; the 'open source and Free Software' community seem to be reasonably positive and trusting towards them.

Now take Microsoft. Yes; they're making an effort, but the fact that most of it can be easily attributed to one person (and the group they control, etc.) suggests it's not in the same league. Perhaps they are moving towards using these methods internally - that must be nice for them. They've built their own version of sourceforge and their own version of the OSI licences - that doesn't sound like a company trying to engage in an existing community as much as a company trying to build one of their own. Plus there are years worth of negative PR to overcome. They will need to do something as drastic or even more so than IBM and Sun if they want people to really take them seriously.

So what could they do? Well, obviously they aren't going to release Windows or Office under as Free Software, but they could:

1. Make a serious, good faith, legally binding commitment not to sue Free Software developers or users. Something like "If it's released under an OSI approved licence - we won't sue".

2. Support ODF properly, natively in Office. We really don't need Office Open XML.

3. Start handing out (no strings attached) documentation to Open Source projects. NTFS documentation and support for the Samba team would seem obvious choices.

4. Produce a POSIX emulation layer that is source compatable for a wide range of software. Port the Debian archives for example to prove it works and give their users access to a wide range of Free Software with at least a semi official stamp of approval.

In short, Microsoft won't be able to get open source developers to come to them - but they are welcome to join the open source community; provided that they are willing to play just like everyone else.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Natasha Becroft Melbourne, Australia

I thought this one line summarised the article nicely;

"Microsoft has quietly embraced the open source process,"

Of course it's arbitrary whether you envisage that as a Death Adder or from the US DoJ Findings of Fact; look for the attempted extinguish .. it will be about two years from now.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Wesley Parish Christchurch, NZ

Microsoft has got itself into a few comfortable niche markets, the office desktop and the home computer appliance, and is trying for some other equally comfortable niches, the "enterprise" back office, and the cellphone, for example.

Microsoft's major problem is that its traditional methods - allow the pioneers to innovate and develop a market then step in and take it off them - does not work any longer. Two reasons - it goes to sleep once it's gained its monopoly, and the FOSS development process and people do better work than they do and are eating their lunch slowly but surely.

Ergo, Microsoft is paddling on the shores of the ocean, dipping its toes in the water, but mortally afraid that like the Wicked Witch of the West, it'll get dissolved the instant it gets in any deeper. ;) They must be feeling guilty - or whatever approximates to it. ;)

Consequently, Microsoft's actions are perfectly understandable, and even to a certain degree reasonable. But IBM for one has found out that the only way to gain respectability in the FOSS circles is to become an active contributor - and Ballmer's rumblings indicate that Microsoft's head honchos aren't comfortable with that.

How it will all pan out, I don't know - but I have thought that MS SQL Server could be a real market leader if it dropped the religious "Microsoft-only" stance and got ported to Linux and Solaris. But they'd need a management buy out to do that - Ballmer doesn't have the guts to do it, that's for certain.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Lee Hauser Federal Way, WA

David Skoll, what are you thinking? Microsoft is a public corporation. Under American law, at least, its only purpose is to make money for its investors (which are, in essence, the "it" you speak of. Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending Microsoft, though working with their software pays the bills in my house. You can run screaming away from them or ignore them, but to expect them to do anything that doesn't enhance their bottom line is unrealistic.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Todd Knarr Anonymous

I don't think any of this will make a difference in Microsoft's relationship with the open-source community, or with open-source software. The problem isn't Microsoft's development practices or anything that easy, it's with Microsoft's corporate attitude. They seem to feel, as a corporation, that anything less than total domination of a market segment by their software is an unacceptable failure. You can see it at work in their vehement attempts to kill off ODF. There's a lot of reasoning and evidence behind this, but my conclusion is: there's absolutely no technical reason Microsoft can't cleanly and correctly support ODF in Office on an equal footing with every other format they support, even as a native storage format. They've the developers and the talent to do it trivially. But doing so would make it easy for people to not use Microsoft software, and Microsoft the corporation considers this totally and utterly unacceptable. As long as this attitude persists I don't see much changing, and there's not a lot the open-source community can do about the situation. Microsoft is like the kid in the sandbox who insists that only his toys are allowed and everybody has to follow his rules to play with his toys: the only thing the other kids can do is go off to their own sandbox and simply refuse to play with him until he becomes a little less anti-social. And no, it's not the individual Microsoft developers who have this attitude, it comes down from a small portion of upper management.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Jean-Marc Liotier Paris, France

A couple of decades of experience have shown that Microsoft is an extremely developer friendly company. Anyone willing to port software to a Microsoft platform and therefore make the platform more valuable is greeted sincerly with open arms. But what history has also shown is that Microsoft has a habit of letting a niche develop right until it takes off, at which point Microsoft comes in and crushes all opposition by means of subsidies, sheer commercial weight and probably of the most vicious distortion of standardization and interoperability efforts. With that track record, Microsoft will have an extremely hard time convincing anyone that they intend to cooperate. They belatedly begin to use open source, but only to strengthen their grip on their customers.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Niz Anonymous

Its clear from the article that Microsoft's approach to opensource is a double-standard of 'encouraging' other companies with windows-based products to put their source code on Microsoft's CodePlex website and so benefit Microsoft, but Its also clear Microsoft aren't ever going to put their own products source code there.

The more they try to become different, the more they stay the same.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Dave Anonymous

So, when Ballmer goes on about how Linux users need to watch out for patent litigation, that's just sweaty hot air right? Microsoft is pro-open source now? Give me a break. They consistently, to this day, hamper standards efforts to hinder interoperability and continue to spread anti-Linux FUD. If they want to get on the good side of the Open Source world they should start with opening the protocols and file formats that they hold so dearly so that GPL licenced products can interoperate completely with them and without a legal shadow. Until then this kind of article is just a bunch of baloney for the PHBs of the world.

Tue, Mar 13, 2007 Tommy Anonymous

I have a bad feeling about this, microsoft will probably try to
push developers to use and BSD - like licence, not GPL, and without GPL, in short time there will be no OSS.

Mon, Mar 12, 2007 David Skoll Ottawa, Canada

The problem is that Microsoft has no credibility with users of Open Source or Free Software. As a business owner, I have determined that Microsoft's sole motivation is to act in its own interests and not in its customers' interests. Therefore, we do not use any Microsoft software (and in fact, such software is forbidden at my company.) The only software I trust to be aligned to my business interests is open-source software, so that is all we use.

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