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Microsoft Makes Its Peace With Open Source

Last month, I noted in the Linux Pipeline newsletter that Microsoft's new leadership was likely to adopt a far more pragmatic, and positive, attitude towards open-source software. I was right about what would happen, but wrong about the timing: In just two weeks, with two decisions, Microsoft has already largely demolished years of anti-Open Source dogma.

Last month, I noted in the Linux Pipeline newsletter that Microsoft's new leadership was likely to adopt a far more pragmatic, and positive, attitude towards open-source software. I was right about what would happen, but wrong about the timing: In just two weeks, with two decisions, Microsoft has already largely demolished years of anti-Open Source dogma.Microsoft's announcement last week that it will develop an OpenDocument Format plug-in for its Office suite, may have been the bigger surprise to most people; the company's battle to stop the government of Massachusetts from adopting ODF as a standard document format was long, hard-fought, and exceedingly ugly. Bear in mind, however, that Ray Ozzie first discussed the company's Office plug-in option nine months ago. Today, as Microsoft's chief software architect -- a position Gates handed off to Ozzie the day of his retirement announcement -- it makes sense that he would quickly end Microsoft's opposition to a format backed by an international standards body, that enjoys growing industry support and stands only to benefit millions of office-software end users.

Microsoft's latest announcement, pledging to support the open-source Xen virtualization tool in its upcoming Windows "Longhorn" server line, admittedly sounds about as exciting as an ingrown toenail. And speaking from experience, it's painful even to compose a headline that uses the word "virtualization," much less to craft one that grabs readers and draws them into the story.

But bear with me on this one. I think Charles Babcock, in his coverage of the announcement, excels at sidestepping the high-tech doubletalk and emphasizing why this story is, in fact, a bombshell.

Microsoft announced today it will team up with open source virtualization supplier XenSource to run Linux virtual machines under its Windows Longhorn Server.

The move is a big extension of Microsoft's previous commitment to allow Linux virtual machines to run under Windows. In April, it said it would support Linux under its base virtualization product, Virtual Server. Now it's going to support the generation and management of many Linux virtual machines on its most advanced software.

Four years ago, Microsoft denounced open source code as an affront to intellectual property and explained why customers shouldn't want to run Linux in the first place. Now the company's bent on making it easier to do so. Microsoft clearly understands the wave of virtualization sweeping its customers' data centers. Many of those data centers are running Linux as well as Windows. Microsoft's Jeff Price, senior director for Windows Server, says: "Customers will definitely have multiple systems. They're asking, 'What are you doing to make our lives easier?' " Microsoft's answer is that it will add a virtualization hyper-visor, a more efficient invocation of virtualization, to Windows Longhorn server and it will support Linux virtual machines running under it. Longhorn server is due by the end of 2007 and the hyper-visor is due six months after Longhorn is released, Price said in an interview.

Bearing in mind that it's only mid-July, I think this is the most important Microsoft-related news you'll read about this year -- more important than the latest Windows Vista scheduling boo-boo, or the company's slow-motion pie fight with European antitrust bureaucrats, or even the news of Gates' retirement.

I'll rehash what I wrote last month, because I think it's still a pretty fair assessment of how both of these developments represent the big picture at Microsoft.

Of Microsoft's entire senior leadership, Craig Mundie and (especially) Ray Ozzie are the two best people -- and perhaps the only people -- who can turn not only Microsoft's culture, but also the products it creates, towards a more productive relationship with the open-source ecosystem. And while this process would certainly be easier with Steve Ballmer's buy-in and blessing, it's important to note that Ozzie and Mundie don't need either of those things to guide the company in this direction.

I'm not predicting an open-source version of Windows, or Office, or any of the company's other profit centers; even if Microsoft survived the fiscal consequences of such extreme moves, it most certainly would not survive the shareholder lawsuits. What I have in mind is a far more gradual process which -- like so many great technological shifts -- delivers less than we expect in the short run but far more than we expect in the long run.

What do I have in mind? Think less about Red Hat, or even Novell, and more about what IBM has done -- not just in terms of its products, but also in terms of the relationships it has built throughout the open-source ecosystem.

There are common-sense limits to this process -- both in terms of just how much change Microsoft's corporate culture can absorb, and in terms of preventing any freakouts among the company's slightly jumpy shareholders. The idea, for example, that Microsoft would open-source either Windows or Office, or any part of its still-expanding enterprise software stack, still falls somewhere between a Walter Mondale political comeback and a new Guns 'N Roses album on the "It Could Happen" scale.

Nor does this mean that anyone at Microsoft is warming up to Linux -- unless you mean the kind of "warming" that involves sticking a fork in it when it's done. Case in point: COO Kevin Turner's raw-meat rant during an event for the company's VARs, all of whom must have loved watching Turner go Bakersfield Chimp on Google, Red Hat, and all of the other vagrants aiming to make off with a chunk of the company's business market share.

Turner certainly has his work cut out for him: While rallies the faithful to stand their ground defending Microsoft's "house," Google is sitting in the front yard, getting busy with a wrecking ball. His point, however, is still valid: Taking care of business, by necessity, means "taking care" of the competition.

Taking care of business also, of course, means taking care of one's customers -- and Microsoft's customers clearly require technology that embraces interoperability and technological diversity. A constructive, and at times even collaborative, relationship with open-source software will allow Microsoft to serve its customers more effectively, without sacrificing its ability to compete -- in some cases, against the same software and the companies that support it.

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