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Microsoft Open Source, Standards Chiefs Tout 'Openness'

Interviews with Sam Ramji and Tom Robertson reveal Microsoft is strong on building open source business models and community as well as interoperability and industry standards.

Microsoft as of late has been championing what it says is the cause of openness. From releasing gobs of protocol documentation and using open source in a management product to increasingly speaking at open source conventions and signing patent cross-licensing deals with other software vendors, the company has plenty of moves to point toward. Customers, competitors and critics meanwhile remain skeptical.

In preparation for the magazine's May 19 lead feature story on whether Microsoft is indeed becoming a more open company, InformationWeek interviewed two Microsoft executives key to the company's understanding of the open source business models and community as well as interoperability and industry standards.

InformationWeek: How do you approach people to work out cross-licensing or interoperability deals between Microsoft and the open source community? Take your recent deal with the Samba folks, for example.

Sam Ramji, senior director of platform strategy for Microsoft: About a year ago, I began talking with Jeremy Allison and the Samba team. I attended the SambaXP Conference in Goettingen, Germany in late April (Microsoft went there again this year). Sitting down and having frank, engineer to engineer conversations around the table about what their goals were, what kind of information they'd like to get, what kind of things they'd like to see from Microsoft led us as a company to see that we can have these conversations, we can take down these lists of requests, we can go back and then deliver on those lists. Specifically with the Samba team that list ranged from MSDN licenses for some of their unpaid developers who needed development tools all the way to sending their engineers to their CIFS Conference at Google in September of 2007.

As we delivered on those different requests that they had, they saw that we were present in the conversation, we were good for our commitments, and that let us have another conversation with them in October about what a form of the trade secret copyright agreement would look like for the protocols they were interested in that would really work for their developers and their development model. Fundamentally, the technical engineering conversations are where all of these things start, whether you're looking at Java or PHP or Samba or Linux or MySQL. The difference between the technologists sitting around the table is actually not very big. We all care about the same things: we want users to get great software, we want the software to work well together.

InformationWeek: How much of this recent public push towards "openness" is about the realities of the Web and of the emergence of open source as a viable model versus something else? The people that you need to convince, they're going to be skeptical.

Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of standards and interoperability: The company's been looking at the issue of interoperability for a long time, and I think over the last three-plus years, the effort has really redoubled because there's a sense of a changing marketplace. More and more customers are saying, 'We've got heterogeneous systems and we expect vendors to work together, regardless of their business model or how the development of their software took place.' We have people who have an always on, always connected expectation and they want to make sure that their software, their systems, the components of their systems work well together, and that their systems work well with or communicate with other systems that are out on the Web or the lines. Our customers are telling us that they want us to look at this issue more and focus our efforts across the company in an expanded way. Regulators are also interested in this.

Ramji: I think that frame is really helpful in how we look at the market, and there are two dimensions. There is the dimension of interoperability, which I think comes based on recognizing that there are a lot of other technologies out there that we really need to work well with. The other dimension is open source, where we've gotten a much more sophisticated understanding of what open source is. It can mean a development model, a sales and marketing model, a licensing model, a collaboration model; it can also get into conversations about what is open participation. There's a lot of open source outreach to run open source on Windows. We can be specific and concrete about where we compete with specific technologies offered by commercial organizations like Red Hat's Enterprise Linux or like Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

InformationWeek Reports

It is that specification, which is a distinction we now have, that we understand very clearly where do we work and collaborate for compatibility so you've got open source applications running on top of Windows and where do we work to collaborate to get interoperability to have system A and system B talking well to one another when one is Windows and one is Linux.

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