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Microsoft ready for an open-source skoolin'

FAT patents pie

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Sam Ramji wants more input from the open-source community, hoping to make Microsoft more responsive to their needs.

The director of the open-source development lab at Microsoft has told a Linux Foundation event he's trying to educate Microsoft and slowly change its ways. The only way he can do that, Ramji said, is to hear from those in the community, to channel and understand their ideas.

Ramji called himself the community's "unelected representative" within Microsoft.

"Now, you might not have said you wanted one [an unelected representative]," he said during a Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit panel this week. "But for those who can see this as useful, then you can help me by making me smarter about what the problems are, so I can then educate the company and make it smarter.

"The more you can help me understand what the problems are, the more I can help make Microsoft behave in the way you would like it," Ramji said.

With the recent TomTom spat in the air, software patents quickly surfaced as a major area of disagreement. The panel was hosted by Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin and Sun Microsystems' developer and OpenSolaris chief turned vice president of cloud-computing strategy Ian Murdock. Zemlin recently called for FAT - the source of the TomTom spat and the pie that Microsoft's lawyers have their patent fingers in - to be ripped from systems.

Ramji was put on the spot by audience member and Samba co-lead Jeremy Allison over what he called a lack of clarity inside Microsoft about which of its patents open-source is allowed to inter-operate with.

"If I were asking Microsoft for anything, I'd ask for clarity," Alison said.

Microsoft has placed about 200 of its patented protocols in its Open Specification Promise, which Ramji flagged up as evidence of Microsoft's commitment and visibility. However, the community is wary of OSP. The Software Freedom Law Center last year warned OSP is unclear and cannot be relied upon - especially by developers using GPL.

You can read the fill SFLC critique here.

Alison drew attention to the fact open-source couldn't sign the OSP. "Everywhere, you have a licensing program, you are saying: 'Open-source keep out,' because we can't sign those licensing programs that you have because the license doesn't allow it."

Ahead of that, Ramji had admitted that despite being two years into his current position at Microsoft, he's only a year into engaging with Microsoft's lawyers when it comes to open source.

Ramji, meanwhile, pointed to past areas where conversations with open source had lead to collaboration and positive outcomes for all concerned. That's included putting Linux on Microsoft's HyperV hypervisor, tuning PHP of Windows, and making Samba inter-operate with Windows. On the latter, Ramji said his team in Redmond, Washington is finding and fixing bi-directional bugs in Samba and in Microsoft's implementation on Windows that he said the company is fixing.

Feedback is not always what the internal product groups inside Microsoft want to hear, though, and the need to change can be as much cultural as technical - even if the end result helps Microsoft's overall goal of shifting more copies of Windows.

However, Microsoft's customers want interoperability with open source.

According to Ramji, customers have said in the past they'd buy more copies of Windows if PHP ran better on it. "That was a shocker to talk about internally two or three years ago," Ramji said.

"PHP? We've got ASP.NET. We put millions and millions of dollars and hundreds of developers into this. But you hear that from enough customers and you think: 'Gosh, that's a good idea'."

Murdock, meanwhile, attested to the difficulty faced by large companies in changing such thinking when told by customers or developers they want interoperability with technologies that are not their own.

"Same with us. With Java, it used to be: 'It's the answer. Now what's the question?' Now, we support just about anything. Developers come to us and say: 'This is what we care about,' and if we don't listen, shame on us," said Murdock.

He also pointed to the inertia that exists in large companies like Sun. The trick is to turn the big-company inertia into momentum that supports you. " Frankly, at the beginning, I was little big naive," said Murdock, the Debian father who joined Sun in 2007 to lead the company's operating systems platform strategy and OpenSolaris project.

"To me, what Sun needs to do with OpenSolaris was obvious. And from some conversations with some people at Sun on an individual basis, it was obvious to the individuals. But collectively, large organizations tend to have a lot of inertia. And getting beyond that inertia was much more challenging than I thought it would be based on those initial conversations." ®

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