InformationWeek recently interviewed Bill Hilf, Microsoft's leading light on open source issues. Since coming to Microsoft from IBM in 2003, Hilf has been inextricably involved with Microsoft's strategy for dealing with Linux. He's recently been appointed general manager of Windows Server marketing and platform strategy, which means he's taking on an expanded role, but open source is still one of his core issues.
InformationWeek: How is Microsoft's strategy toward open source and viewpoint about open source shifting?
Hilf: Years ago, Microsoft had a very specific interpretation of what open source is. Open source and Linux were sort of synonymous and it was sort of a specter-like ghost. A lot of what I've done over the past four years is help to parse out two issues: Where do we cooperate and where's the value for our company in participating, and where specifically do we compete head-to-head and make sure there's no grayness around that?
We compete specifically with things like Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The software that goes into Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we may or may not compete with at a feature level, but the real value of open source from Microsoft is understanding how community developed software can happen on our platform and help grow our business as well as the open source community, which is how we started off on this whole path of launching things like Port25 and CodePlex, and which is why I submitted the licenses to the OSI.
InformationWeek: Are there any specific areas where you would see Microsoft placing things in an open source development environment as a way to further its own products or to better interoperate with things?
Hilf: When people buy commercial software, really what they're buying is a guarantee. You're buying a guarantee that what you have will perform, and has been tested and there's someone you can call up, and if things go really bad someone's liable if something doesn't work. You're buying this ecosystem of accountability. One of the challenges of open source and really the challenge with the open source business model is: it's hard to replicate that ecosystem of accountability and that guarantee.
The first question that I ask, because I'm deeply involved with that decision chain is, what does this do to help or hinder that ecosystem of accountability, the testing model, the support model, the backstop? That has to be a counterbalance to any value that we might get out of a community software development model, and those are decisions that we kind of walk through.
Red Hat's been really the only proof that somebody can provide an overlay support service, and even then, I don't know that it's even that significant of a proof. The community itself is the value of open source, not any one vendor who's participating in it. I think a lot of people get lost in the software, the source code part of it. What we've been doing strategically is try to figure out how do we participate in that community as a good citizen so that we're in that sort of same value chain. We did the same thing at IBM. There's lots of participation of IBM in open source, but there's very little shared source code between IBM's shipping products and open source software.
InformationWeek: In order to participate in communities like that, how do you cut through the muddle of the Richard Stallmans of the world and overcome the popular resistance, and also cut through the resistance that you've gotten from people like Red Hat who you might want to partner with?
Hilf: We just had a bunch of our global account managers in with us, people who handle our super big customers, and they said, these customers don't even know who Richard Stallman is, they don't even care. They've chosen Linux or Apache or open source in general because of a few simple reasons: either price, or functionality, they want a more modular system or they want something that has a smaller footprint, there are certain needs that they have that are satisfied by that type of software.