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Microsoft's Ramji Extends Olive Branch To Eclipse Users

The open source labs director's keynote at EclipseCon 2008 was met with guarded optimism from open source developers.

Charles Babcock

March 19, 2008

4 Min Read

Microsoft is making a transition from being a company that values only proprietary software to one that recognizes that developers produce much unpatented, freely available open source code on Windows machines.

That doesn't mean Microsoft is an open source code company, but it does mean the hostility it has previously expressed is abating, said Sam Ramji, director of Microsoft's open source labs, during the keynote address of the second day of EclipseCon 2008, a meeting of users of the open source Eclipse programmers workbench. Ramji's labs ensure that key open source code can work with Windows technologies.

There had been speculation that Microsoft might join the Eclipse Foundation or move its Java-like C# language onto the Eclipse open source programmer's workbench, once it became know that Ramji had accepted a keynote slot at the annual user group meeting. But no such dramatic move was forthcoming.

"We want to be the best platform for developing open source applications," Ramji said at one point. "We're seeing a lot of open source software written on top of Windows. It's a huge, sustainable market opportunity being the infrastructure of open source developers," he said at another.

Microsoft had its eyes opened when former JBoss CEO Marc Fleury told the company that JBoss business analysis indicated 50% of its customers were running its Java application server and middleware on Windows servers. Several years ago, Microsoft set up a working relationship with JBoss, while it was still an independent company, and improved JBoss performance on Windows by supplying better drivers. JBoss was acquired by Linux distributor Red Hat in April 2006.

Still, at moments Ramji seemed less intent on bringing an olive branch directly from Redmond than reporting on developments evident to anyone watching his company. "You're seeing a change in the company culture when Steve Ballmer at Windows Server 2008 talks about how good it is to have PHP applications running on Windows," he said. PHP is an open source scripting language backed by Zend Technologies that is used in many Web applications. "Of course they want to sell their Windows Servers. That's no big surprise," said a skeptical Pamela Wright, senior software engineer at Diji International, after Ramji's talk. "At least they're more willing to discuss things, compared to five years ago."

"He went a little way toward convincing me that Microsoft is more committed to the open source community," said attendee Jonathan Crow, director of marketing at Intalio, the business process management vendor. But he added that Microsoft will have to do more than send a few goodwill emissaries to conferences to convince him. "You have to remember, they are Microsoft. They can dictate the terms of the debate."

"I think Microsoft will increase its activity in open source projects," said David Sciamma, wearing a prized Eclipse Committer T-shirt, meaning he is one of a handful of final arbiters over contributed code to the Eclipse.org project.

But he didn't think the company has dropped its sense of competition with Linux and other forms of open source. "Not really," he said in answer to a question on that issue. He added, however, that he "was not really afraid" at any time that Microsoft would make overt moves against open source, despite CEO Ballmer making statements a year ago about having patents that covered Linux and other open source code functionality. "I don't think they would be like SCO," he said. Sciamma is a technology manager at Anyware Technologies.

"Microsoft has stumbled a lot in relation to open source communities. There's been a lot of defensive stuff going on," added Mike Yawn, software developer at eBay, who said he was speaking only for himself, not his company.

Ramji said many people are not aware how much Microsoft now cooperates with open source projects. Last year it agreed to supply documentation on Windows APIs to the Samba project, which he praised as "one of the most competent engineering teams on the planet. We'll never be better than the Samba guys." Ramji said Microsoft reached the agreement with Samba after its lead developer, Jeremy Allison, contacted him after reading remarks he had made about being willing to work with open source projects.

Ramji said Microsoft's CardSpace engineering team is cooperating with the Eclipse Higgins project to jointly come up with a layer of identity protection and management that will work on the Web.

Microsoft also works directly with Zend Technologies on PHP and the former MySQL AB, now part of Sun Microsystems, on MySQL database connectivity.

Ramji said his interoperability labs have a $5 million annual budget at a $51 billion company. He said the reach of the labs is larger than its budget might appear because "we work with other units across the company."

But not everyone among his listeners considered that proof of good future intentions toward open source code projects in general. Robert Ukotic, a project maker at AmdoSoft, an independent software vendor in Kastav, Croatia, listened to Ramji's talk and shrugged soon afterward. "We'll see," he said.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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