Despite Criticism, Microsoft Exec Defends Open Source Progress

As critics continue to question Microsoft's commitment to working with the open source community, a key Microsoft official last week argued the company has made significant progress while defending its right to enforce patents. And he made his defense on the open source community's turf: the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) held in San Francisco.

In a keynote address at OSBC, Robert Youngjohns, Microsoft's president of North America sales and marketing, said skeptics should ignore the company's storied history of open source bashing and focus instead on its newfound commitment to open technologies like the PHP dynamic scripting language and open file formats, as well as its pursuit of interoperability between Windows and Linux.

"You have to judge us by our performance and actions, rather than what we said," Youngjohns said.

Microsoft's work with Zend to make sure that applications written in PHP run well on Windows, as well as its efforts to get its Open XML (OOXML) accepted as a standard document format, are also critical proof points, according to Youngjohns. He said Microsoft's commitment was not "driven by theoretical construct," but by the realities of the market.

"If we can position Windows Server 2008 and our Web stack as the best possible Web stack going forward, then we will do better as a company," he said. "This is driven by that simple commercial imperative and that goes through everything we do right now."

Nonetheless, Youngjohns defended Microsoft's right to protect its intellectual property and patents. "We're not making those licenses onerous," he said. "Many vendors have signed up for those licenses...I believe it's our duty to enforce them, and I make no apology for that."

Still Under Fire
However, Microsoft still continues to come under fire for its actions. Two years ago, Microsoft claimed publicly that Linux and free open source software (FOSS) are violating 235 Microsoft patents. In February, Redmond took what looked to be its first action against an alleged violator, filing suit against auto navigation device maker TomTom over alleged infringement of its U.S. patents by Linux and open source, though the two yesterday announced a settlement.

And standards experts, such as creator Andrew Updegrove, have argued that Microsoft's efforts to make OOXML a standard were meant to short-circuit the growing popularity of a competing standard, the OpenDocument Format (ODF).

Youngjohns' OSBC keynote came on the heels of Microsoft's publication of a white paper entitled "Participation in a World of Choice: Perspectives on Open Source and Microsoft" (PDF). In it, Microsoft characterized itself as "actively participating in open source." The paper allows that open source products and practices "may in some cases provide healthy competition that challenges us to innovate in new and different ways," and that open source software "may complement Microsoft technologies, or even become a core part of Microsoft product group business and technical strategy."

Furthermore, the paper states Microsoft's intention to support "increasing opportunities for developers to learn and create by combining community-oriented open source with traditional commercial approaches to soft ware development."

So, is Microsoft (through Youngjohns) talking out of both sides of its mouth?  If it is, said Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond, then so are its chief competitors Oracle, IBM and Red Hat, among others.

"There are many mouths and many opinions at Microsoft," Hammond said, "and it's no wonder that they show some discord in approach. Look at IBM -- Linux everywhere, but an OSS app server like GlassFish would be a bad idea, and MySQL wouldn't do much to help DB2 sales. And Microsoft isn't the first (or the last) company to assert patent rights."

Hammond sees Microsoft's embrace of FOSS as a pragmatic move for a large company in transition. "What I think we're seeing from Microsoft is the realization that by embracing FOSS in segments they don't control, they can force profits to adjacent market sectors," Hammond said. "This explains how they can embrace PHP as a great app framework, provided it runs on Windows -- just as IBM can claim Linux is a great OS, as long as it runs on its hardware or underneath WebSphere."

Challenges Ahead
Microsoft has failed to provide a unified position on open source, said Matthew Aslett, enterprise software analyst at the 451 Group. "Engagement with open source projects have been driven by individual product groups and have sometimes been at odds with public statements made by senior executives," Aslett said, though he added the company's white paper is a sign of progress. "[The white paper] reflects the unification of the company's competitive and engagement marketing organizations. I think its publication is hugely important, as it sets the scene for Microsoft to move forward as a single entity towards more involvement in open source development projects."

Aslett pointed out that Microsoft now supports the Apache Software Foundation and contributes to a number of projects along with PHP, including Qpid, Stonehenge and OpenPegasus. The company is also developing a relationship with the Eclipse Foundation and partnering with the likes of SugarCRM, Red Hat and Sun's MySQL group.

But, Aslett said, patents remain a stumbling block. "Microsoft continues to believe that if its patents are being infringed -- whether by open or closed source products -- it has the right to enforce those patents. The company is well aware that legal claims and an aggressive approach to patents do not do it any favors, however, and I believe that lawsuits will be the route of last resort. It is simply not in Microsoft's business interests to be seen as aggressively targeting open source software with patents."

Microsoft's "new-school" evolution is slow compared to smaller, younger, more nimble companies, said Michael Cote, industry analyst at RedMonk. "The traditionalists in the open source community still balk at the IP and patent 'weapons' Microsoft has, as they do at other patent holders and potential users," he said. "I'm not sure that group...will ever be satisfied with the patent system as it is."

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].


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