Microsoft clutches open source to its corporate heart
New GM vows end to religious war
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.
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.
Sitting in the center and at the top of Microsoft, Utzschneider said he wants to "scale out" the evangelical work so there's greater consistency and more bodies getting to events like OSBC.
Another issue is participation. One criticism has been Microsoft's lack of consistency in the way it works with open source. In the Eclipse Community, for example, it's been working with Soyatech on Eclipse plug-ins to Visual Studio for Silverlight  and Windows Azure  - both under the Apache license - yet it has held back from becoming a fully paid up participating member of Eclipse.
Some of this is down to politics, some to a lack of internal coordination. Plus, there's the fact that product and business managers are empowered to make bold decisions about what code to contribute and which projects to join but that ordinary Microsoft developers - the kinds of people that keep open source ticking by submitting things like code fixes - are forbidden from donating. This is not unique to Microsoft. I t happens at other companies that "own" their employees' work under US employment law.
On projects and participation, Utzschneider promised Microsoft would increase its investments to encourage PHP developers and communities. He didn't provide further details.
As for code donations, he said a plan is already underway to clarify the internal rules on code contributions by ordinary coders to the open-source community. He would not provide further details beyond calling it a "work in progress," but when pressed, he said contributions would have to be inline with Microsoft's product goals.
"It has to be done in the context of the broader business goals so pulling together that end to end framework we can use internally is important," Utzschneider said.
Utzschneider also plans to pull together as much information as possible to catalog Microsoft's donations to open source, so it can finally articulate what it's been doing in open source. Microsoft will then lobby customers, governments, and policy makers and work with its resellers and partners to help them realize "the days of religion have gone".
Much will depend on what corporate winds are blowing inside Microsoft. Utzschneider was appointed in December after one of Microsoft's regular strategy reviews yielded a collective enlightenment on the positive benefits of working with open source.
However, things can quickly change inside a company renowned for regularly moving people around and re-organizing reporting structures. Genuine success for Microsoft in its dealings with open source will need a genuine corporate commitment that extends beyond its next review - due in the middle of this year.
The Redmond veteran said that Microsoft has evolved in its approach to open source and recognized that it makes good business sense to inter-operate with things like PHP or open-source content management systems running on its Azure cloud or on the Windows operating system.
This is also a reciprocal relationship to be had: Open sourcers are constantly looking for ways to make money, and Windows represents a large and entrenched platform for their applications to run on. Also, a growing number of Microsoft's army of SIs are working with Windows and open-source to deliver a finished product or services for customers.
"This is something we probably wouldn't have been thinking about 10 years ago in the Get the Facts environment, but it's just a reality in the world moving forward," Utzschneider said of the elevation of open-source to a position with cross-company visibility.
He was careful to point out that those behind the Halloween memos have moved on from Microsoft.
"We are quite content to say: 'Here's the value from what we are presenting and here's the value from the comp products' but we are doing that without the religion of: 'Oh my God, there's two different worlds and you have to choose one - a world where you have to pay for software and one is weird and different and free.' That's what we've moved away from as a company.
"We have to teach our sellers how to talk about open source in a new way, and the overall theme is that it's OK for open-source products and Microsoft products to work together. There's a growing Microsoft ecosystem that we are going to encourage." ®