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Microsoft clutches open source to its corporate heart

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Open source has moved into Microsoft's beating corporate heart. Redmond's new open source group reports to the company number two, chief operating officer and aggressive compete-to-win-type Kevin Turner.

James Utzschneider has been named Microsoft's general manager of open source, a role that will see him and a team of 80 individuals lobby governments, Microsoft's army of systems integrators, and everyone else on how the company is working to make Windows inter-operate with Linux and open source.

Utzschneider will also meet with representatives of the open-source community to funnel their feedback into the company and - hopefully - into the plans of Microsoft's large and diverse business units and product groups.

Utzschneider's appointment represents a major elevation in the attention open source now gets inside Microsoft.

Much of the evangelism and ambassadorial work in the recent past had been done by senior director of platform strategy Sam Ramji - who left for family reasons last autumn. However, Ramji worked inside the server and tools business. This is ultimately one of five product groups that fight for corporate territory. Under Utzschneider, the open-source strategy and messaging now gets a broader, cross-company view inside Microsoft's global business and marketing operations unit.

BMO sits under corporate vice president Peter Cray, who reports to Turner, and its goal is to define Microsoft's business priorities and strategies that increased sales.

The thinking is that by being in a senior, central position, Microsoft's work on open source won't get bogged down in the petty product-group politics of "we've got a better widget than they have". In theory, Microsoft can now develop a broader strategic approach to open source.

In an exclusive interview, Utzschneider told The Reg: "When we work on product strategy it involves marketing, engineering, and management. So it's not just driving open-source marketing and outreach to customers, but also listening to the community and synthesizing that and feeding it back into the product groups in Microsoft."

Also important to this mission is Utzschneider himself. As a 15-year Microsoft veteran, he knows how the company ticks, which should help open-source penetrate deeper into the operation. Since joining in 1995, he's worked on technologies, products, and alliances. He helped build Microsoft Transaction Server, the Distributed Component Object Model (COM+), and BizTalk Server. He dealt with IBM on the WS-* specifications in the early 2000s. And he worked on the acquisition of the Great Plains business suite. It doesn't get much more Microsoft than Utzschneider.

"That's something [strategy] I've done before in other roles at Microsoft. I definitely have a seat at the table [on setting Microsoft's open-source strategy]," he said.

Utzschneider has his work cut out for him. Despite the evangelical work of Ramji, Microsoft is almost permanently coming from behind when it comes to open source and Linux.

Ramji frequently met with open sourcers from the PHP and MySQL communities, took feedback on where Microsoft could be doing better from the likes of Mono and Moonlight projects' leader Miguel de Icaza and Google's open source programs manager Chris DiBona. He also frequently pressed the flesh as Microsoft ambassador at EclipseCon, the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) and the Linux Foundation's LinuxCon.

Over the years, Microsoft has also made a number of donations and contributions to open source and Linux. These included a release of a pair of PHP patches under the Free Software Foundation's Lesser GPL license, the SQL Server Driver for PHP released under Microsoft's own Permissive License, the release by Microsoft of 20,000 lines of Windows kernel code under GPLv2 to improve performance and manageability of Linux running insider the company's Hyper-V, and the Windows Installer XML (WiX) toolset to SourceForge.

Microsoft has also helped the Linux implementation of its Silverlight browser-based media player and providing support for Apache Software Foundation's POI project for manipulating Office Open XML standards (OOXML) and OLE 2 in Java.

Scary times

But Microsoft is still haunted by a legacy of bad blood and what it calls "misrepresentations". This stems not just from Utzschneider's boss Steve Ballmer and his periodic claims that Linux is violating Microsoft patents. It goes further back. Microsoft's first attempts to engage with open source and Linux produced the hated Get the Facts campaign. This was followed by the notorious Halloween memos. Both exposed a bare-knuckled fight to discredit Linux and open source and persuade customers and partners that Windows was empirically the better way to go.

Utzschneider said Microsoft has changed, realizing it makes good business sense to work with Linux and open source - although the two will still compete in places. To change perceptions about Microsoft, he said the company can't use "clever advertising or press".

"It has to be done with products and actions and behavior on a sustained basis across the company and across the ecosystem. I want the idea of Microsoft being proprietary and closed and not open to interoperating - I want that to disappear as an issue," he said.

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