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9/16/2009
02:19 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Steep Climb For Microsoft's Next Open Source Advocate

Sam Ramji, Microsoft's credible open source spokesman, is leaving to join a startup and return with his family to the San Francisco Bay area. All Microsoft has to do is find a replacement. Ramji tried to push a mighty boulder up the mountain and got it at least to the first ledge. How will his successor fare?

Sam Ramji, Microsoft's credible open source spokesman, is leaving to join a startup and return with his family to the San Francisco Bay area. All Microsoft has to do is find a replacement. Ramji tried to push a mighty boulder up the mountain and got it at least to the first ledge. How will his successor fare?Sam Ramji, first as director of Microsoft's Open Source Labs, then as platform strategy manager, saw his job as building bridges to the open source world over the last three years. He knew he wasn't likely to win any popularity contests in the process but he went about the task in a gritty way that I always respected. And he was a bona fide user of open source at an earlier employer.

At Microsoft, he seemed to hold his own and became a symbol of the respect many developers feel for open source within his company's own ranks. And he was being groomed for bigger things. He had thrived as head of Microsoft's Open Source Labs, the place where Microsoft made sure key pieces of open source code worked with Windows, and could carry a message to the outside world. He went from managing 12 people to 112 when he became senior director of platform strategy a year ago. If the present era of Windows/open source cooperation endures, Sam would have been a candidate to become one of Bill Hilf's top lieutenants and perhaps succeed him as general manager of Windows Server Marketing and Platform Strategy.

Instead, Sam is leaving Microsoft at the end of September. His successor will inherit a position where he must advocate acceptance of open source in a company that still seems of two minds on the issue. Many developers and project managers in Microsoft empathize with open source development and understand what it has accomplished.

Then there is Microsoft's older generation of top managers and legal executives who would still would like to halt open source code's advance.

Microsoft recently put 22 of its patents on the market in a manner that had open source advocates pointing out that the way it did so meant the patents were likely to end up in the hands of trolls. Patent trolls use their acquired IP to shakedown technology companies for royalties or licensing fees, suing occasionally when they don't get what they want. They don't defend technology they've created. They just troll the waters with a cheap hook, hoping to snag an unwary fish.

Microsoft responded to this criticism by saying as far as it was concerned, any advocate of open source code could have bid for the patents and received them, like any other bidder. It was a routine patent re-evaluation and sale, and implicit in the statement was the sentiment that Microsoft should be accorded the benefit of the doubt like any other company.

But that misses the point. Like individuals, a company's actions are weighed in accordance with past behavior, and in the past, Microsoft has charged that its patents cover Linux and other open source code. Linux product suppliers who understood this correctly would negotiate an agreement with Microsoft, a sort of non-aggression pact where Microsoft would agree not to sue them, even though it could, Microsoft's top management said. Novell signed such an agreement. Red Hat refused.

Simply hinting about the use of patents has a chilling effect on Linux adoption in some quarters, and Windows Server has enjoyed unprecedented growth at the same time Linux has gotten stronger in the data center.

There have been no actual suits against Linux, other than SCO's, but if enough Linux patents found their way into an unruly marketplace, it's within the realm of reason that trolls would generate some suits. And sporadic news about Linux court cases might have a good effect, as far as Microsoft was concerned. Microsoft's decided to sell its patents to Allied Security Trust, but AST, instead of reselling them on the open market as it normally does, sold them to the Open Invention Network, a group of Linux backers. In this case, Microsoft critics are pointing out how closely what might have happened matches up with what Microsoft only a short while ago seemed to think ought to happen -- threatened enforcement of claimed Linux patents. In such cases, the benefit of the doubt isn't automatic; it's suspended. If Microsoft was surprised that some people didn't take its actions in the innocent way they were intended, then it still doesn't realize the consequences of its patent push against open source.

Instead of capitalizing on the recent detente, the next open source spokesman inside Microsoft will find a climate of guarded watchfulness in the larger world. People want to know what Microsoft does as well as what it says. There's a sense that some attitudes die hard inside Microsoft. So Microsoft's next open source advocate will have a large task in front of him. We all know that Microsoft is willing to cooperate with open source code when it is in its own interests to do so-- documenting the Windows/Samba connection, getting PHP to run fast on Windows, ensuring JBoss applications work under Windows Server, even contributing drivers to the Linux kernel. Now it needs a bridge builder who can convince the outside world that Microsoft's divided mind has cleared. It's willing to start building more avenues of cooperation with the open source world-- and its even willing to ensure that those avenues function as a two-way street.

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