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Is Microsoft Committed to Open Source?

It would’ve been very easy to just ignore the presentation titled “Microsoft and Open Source” at the All Things Open conference in Raleigh last week, except for one thing–the presenter.

The folks in Redmond didn’t grab just anybody to speak for them. They sent someone with some serious open source cred, Ross Gardler, who is currently President of the Apache Foundation and is a co-founder of the OpenDirective project. He’s been employed by Microsoft Open Technologies for the past year or so.

It became obvious very early on in his presentation that Gardler is the real McCoy when it comes to open source. While he may not be in the free software camp as much as we’d like, there’s no denying he knows his way around OSS. He’s a true believer, too.

Ross Gardler, speaker for Microsoft at All Things Open

Ross Gardler, Microsoft Open Technologies, Inc.

Obviously, he knew going in that he’d be speaking to a very skeptical audience. At the beginning of the presentation, when he asked for a show of hands from all who were surprised to see the terms “open source” and “Microsoft” being used together, there was some laughter and nearly every hand in the room went up.

“Okay, no surprise,” he said, “almost everybody. Not so long ago, I would’ve put my hand up.”

The presentation began with a feel-good story on how Microsoft and open source saved the day in Costa Rica in September of 2012. There was an earthquake, a bad one, with an accompanying tsunami warning. The server at Teletica, a major Costa Rican news site, quickly went down, swamped by heavy traffic, and needed to get back up pronto. People needed information.

The solution employed by Teletica’s IT folks was Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud service, where they leveraged some available apps to add some needed functionality for their coverage of the disaster, like maps and the ability to post user videos. Quickly, they got back online and were able to serve their audience.

“So they want to cope with three times more traffic than they normally do, they want to put in new features and they want to do it fast. So what do they do? Well, they build and employ a new solution and they put it out on Windows Azure platform and everything goes very well. Eveything is up and running. Everybody is not so happy, there’s been an earthquake, but at least the technology is working. This is grand. The surprising thing, for me, is it took forty-five minutes from the point of going down to the point of coming back up with new services. Forty-five minutes, which in itself is hugely impressive.

“Now, I promised there was a twist and that this wasn’t a Microsoft service pitch. The twist, and what’s important to us here, is that the whole stack was open source. It would have been much harder to do that quite that quickly without open source software. The fact is, on Window Azure they found the solution that they went with. It was an open source solution. And that’s why Microsoft’s engaged with open source. That’s why we’re all engaged with open source.”

Windows Azure turned out to be the star of this presentation and we learned a lot of facts about its use.

We learned that after opening an account on Azure, it’s possible to fire up a virtual machine with a choice of five flavors of Linux as an OS. In addition, we learned about all of the open source projects that receive code contributions from Microsoft, mainly for the benefit of their cloud service, projects such as PHP, Firefox, node.js, Drupal–the list goes on and on.

However, if Azure was the star of this presentation, it was also to key to understanding Microsoft’s primary motivations for suddenly trying to jump on the “we’re open too” bandwagon.

“With Microsoft, customers aren’t just the people who are paying Microsoft for a Windows license or an Office license or whatever… They’re people who are selling products and services to other businesses. We have lots of businesses within Microsoft that make a significant amount of money from customers buying directly, but we also have lots of partners who are engaging with different groups of customers that we personally don’t reach.

“So when we say, when I say, listening to customers, I mean listening to you out here. People who have customers are saying, I really like, let’s say Drupal, and I want to integrate it with Office 365. We need to work with the Drupal community, the PHP community and whatever other technologies are involved to enable you to do that kind of thing. That’s what I mean when I say listening to customers.”

And therein lies the rub.

Microsoft is embracing open source because they have no choice if they wish to keep their proprietary products relevant–especially in the cloud. If Windows Azure offered virtual machines running only on Windows, or only proprietary programs and apps for their stack, the service would fail miserably. Azure’s success depends on its ability to offer CentOS, Apache, Hadoop, Drupal and the like.

Likewise, Microsoft’s contributions to open source projects are almost entirely for the purpose of making sure that open source applications will run well on Windows.

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 31/10/2013 23:07:33
end_date 05/12/2013 10:58:18
Poll Results:
Is Microsoft Committed to Open Source?

In other words, Microsoft hasn’t been struck by lightening and experienced an “aha” moment. They’ve been dragged kicking and screaming by the demon named Necessity into the open source corner. They’re working with open source because it’s the only thing they can do if they want to stay alive.

This very well may turn out to be a good thing, however, for all of us.

To compete in the open source marketplace, Microsoft has been forced to hire some good open source people. There are now folks like Ross Gardler and many others like him, who are collecting paychecks from Redmond to contribute code to and work with open source projects. Eventually these employees, drawn from the open source community, might actually effect a change of thinking within Redmond’s corporate culture and Microsoft might truly become a real open source player one day. Stranger things have happened.

That day is not now, however.

We will know that day has arrived when Microsoft quits threatening every open source project under the sun with patent litigation. When they promise not to use their patents against open source so long as we don’t sue them, then we’ll know they’ve really changed. Until then, we can only encourage them as they take baby steps in the right direction.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux.

19 comments to Is Microsoft Committed to Open Source?

  • ShaunGeorge

    Microsoft interest in OpenSource is for backdoor access … they ported skype over to Linux and look at the backdoors in that.

  • “Until then, we can only encourage them as they take baby steps in the right direction.” – could easily be the best comment on the event.

    I can’t be sure of Ross’ intentions mixing up with MS, but for now i’ll stick to the initial skepticism for Microsoft’s honest connection with the opensource community, although as an act it can be considered positive for the time being. That story has a long way to go however, and it hasn’t even begun yet.

  • Geezer

    Yes they’re committed. Committed to destroying it. As always. Wise up.

  • Microsoft has given us plenty of reasons to distrust it, and “association” with them has often been the kiss of death. We should be leery of their advances. But I think we’ll be okay. I think we’re stronger than they are. All we need is eternal vigilance and scepticism. Don’t be fooled by their corrupt definitions of “open.” Don’t be swayed by feel-good PR. Shake the hand they’re extending, but watch the one behind their back.

    Good writing as always, Ms Hall.

    rjb

  • Andrew

    Microsoft has made a lot of upstream contributions in the last two years, a lot more than our friends at Canonical have.

    I’d say that Microsoft is very difficult to trust, but they are probably more committed to FOSS than Canonical.

    “We will know that day has arrived when Microsoft quits threatening every open source project under the sun with patent litigation.”

    They haven’t done that in years, unless I’ve missed something.

  • They are “committed” as far as market forces require them to be. The moment that Microsoft figures out how to move forward as a company without being involved with any Open Source software is the moment they sever all associations with Open Source.

  • Awwww they bring up the fact about a feel-good story regarding Microsoft Azure, but the other day I read about it going down hard: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/10/30/windows_azure_global_fail/

    Regarding, “With Microsoft, customers aren’t just the people who are paying Microsoft for a Windows license or an Office license or whatever… They’re people who are selling products and services to other businesses.”…. lets be real here, the point is that Microsoft is licensing software products to people, as in “you do not OWN the software, nor can you copy or modify it” The products that Microsoft does attempt to sell, they do not sell very well and end up failing.

    Listening to customers? LOL….just look at the Windows 8 fiasco and the Start button ordeal.

    Until Microsoft releases a free Linux distribution, a free Office suite, builds their own ChromeOS device and gives back all the extortion money from Android device manufacturers, they can go piss off. Never, ever, ever trust a billion dollar trojan horse.

    Read 48 Laws of Power

  • W. Anderson

    Christine Hall and the Readers of FOSS Force must remember one thing about Microsoft. The “huge” dollar investment that Microsoft made in Apache organization and the code contributions to Linux Kernel project, as well as a ‘few’ other Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) were done “only” to help with making these software programs work better with Windows OS.

    In case of Apache, the main prize was Hadoop Big Data application use in Windows, without which Microsoft would be completely ‘dead in the water’ in regard Big Data services.

    For Linux Kernel, Microsoft desperately needed their Hyper-V virtualization and Azure Cloud Services to support the substantial and increasing demand for Linux software/services in a Microsoft environment, and this was the only way to ‘partially’ satisfy this demand without losing all of these requested services and business profits to RedHat Linux.

    No other company makes financial investments or donates technology support to a FOSS project on strict terms that any and all new capability,functions and advances developed cannot be shared for use on BSD UNIX-like or Linux or any FOSS project not controlled by Microsoft.

    That is not altruism or benevolence, just selfish greed, and having a senior Microsoft technologist at a major FOSS event is therefore of no significance.

  • Eddie G.

    Since I cannot predict the future, I can only make some decisions based on the past. And in the past?…Microsoft is like a plagued animal, i that everything it touches becomes swallowed in the giant abyss of “Patent-Land”. The best bet for those who use open source on a regular basis?….stay the course….don’t be sidetracked with cute little stories of “brotherhood & kinship” from M$. I can’t see any side or any angle of this story other than a “me too”-trying-to-catch-up-and-stay-relevant-in-the-marketplace mentality. As for Ross Gardler?…well I won’t make judgements as to why he’s leading the charge for Microsoft, but hey in the real worl……”money” talks, and in this economy?…who can fault him? I for one will be staying far away from M$….I congratulate them for making a move in the right direction, but I question their true motives and am leery as to what might be behind the curtain…I’m just sayin’ LoL!

  • DJ

    The Microsoft-backed Rockstar consortium just initiated patent nuclear war against Android yesterday. Yes, Microsoft is fully committed to open source … that is, to destroying open source completely. I can’t understand how there is even any question as to their stance.

  • […] comprometido Microsoft con el Open Source? Tema espinoso el que plantean en FOSS Force, porque sabemos que el gigante de la informática ha contribuido con el kernel y alguna que otra […]

  • […] comprometido Microsoft con el Open Source? Tema espinoso el que plantean en FOSS Force, porque sabemos que el gigante de la informática ha contribuido con el kernel y alguna que otra […]

  • Andrew

    Well, I guess I get to eat these words: “They haven’t done that in years”.

  • Microsoft is committed to Open Source in the sense that a pedophile teacher is committed to kids.

  • That HAS to be one of the best descriptives/metaphors/similes/analogies… whatever… I’ve ever heard re MS and its policies. And I’ve been watching these guys since the mid 80′s when they started doing their extend/embrace/extinguish thing on lots of great startups.

    The fact is, when you consider the enormous cost MS has been to industry over the years due to their monopoly status, onerous licensing costs, and frequent litigation, MS is the cancer in our marketplace. Open source is the cure.