Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/19/ramji_microsoft_open_source_strategy/

Can Microsoft 'do' open source by 2015?

Consistency and commitment needed

By Gavin Clarke

Posted in Applications, 19th May 2008 06:02 GMT

The recently appointed head of Microsoft's global Linux and open source team hopes the company will have a clear and comprehensible open source strategy by 2015.

Sam Ramji wants people to clearly understand what projects the company is contributing to, and what code Microsoft is making available - along with the terms - on a routine basis.

It seems Ramji is talking about people both inside and outside Microsoft knowing what’s going on.

"We don't have hard rules... right now, it's still careful judgment case by case. By 2015, I think it would be set up," he told Reg Dev, just before his promotion.

"It'll be understood, woven in to the fabric and in product-development cycles, so it's well understood: 'Here is the parts of our product that will be open source.”

Sam Ramji

Ramji: no hard rules

That would be a major improvement on today. To the outside observer, Microsoft is operating in its support of open source on a case-by-case basis. It sponsors a show here but not there - in March it sponsored the Open Source Business Conference, for example, but not EclipseCon.

It is working selectively with open source projects. At EclipseCon, Ramji announced Microsoft will offer the Eclipse Standard Widget Toolkit project "direct" support from its engineering teams and open source software lab. But it's not actually joining anything at Eclipse.

The company has taken to publishing huge tracts of technical information in an apparent rush of "openness". Six hundred thousand pages of documentation for its implementation of Extensible Application Markup Language were released this spring under its Open Specification Promise, and the company also released 30,000 pages on its Windows APIs and protocols.

The documentation, though, sits out there like a rights and royalties landmine waiting to go off. It is unclear what royalties accompany the documents. Developers we’ve spoken to - Zend Technologies’ co-founder and chief technology officer Andi Gutmans and MuleSource chief exec Dave Rosenberg to name two - are concerned that individuals might be forced into paying Microsoft for inadvertently using techniques that happen to be already “owned” by Microsoft and are listed in these documents.

Clearly, much refinement is needed here.

Will Microsoft release more code? Will it stop flirting with open source projects, and actually commit full-time? And what about the big two: open sourcing Windows and Office, and actually releasing its code under independent licensing rather than licenses devised by Microsoft?

Ramji said Microsoft is looking at whether the AJAX SDK and the sample kit should be opened. He's "not closing off" possibilities when it comes to Eclipse. And Microsoft is in "on-going dialog" with community members over making it easier to find the royalties in its documents.

These are hardly commitments of the solid or major variety.

As to opening Windows and Office? That’s unlikely to form part of Microsoft’s strategy by 2015 - at least under the current mode of thought.

Note, Microsoft is largely making its infrastructure-level code - tools, APIs, protocols - free to read but not open source. To Microsoft's credit, free to read is a huge step for any proprietary company, holding intellectual property claims in the US.

The strategy is somewhat self-serving, though, as one might expect. The idea is that by publishing such details, developers can improve the performance of their open source products and code - like PHP - when running on Windows. Why? To ultimately ensure Windows continues to sell, and that PHP developers don’t develop and deploy on, say, Linux instead.

It’s a strategy of practical engagement with open source that’s at least moved on from the early days, with Microsoft’s “Get the facts” campaign. That was a PR hammer designed to bludgeon IT buyers into picking Windows over Linux and open source products. However, it failed to take into account what those building the applications were really doing with their code.

Ramji repeated the current standard Microsoft line: there is little value in opening Windows or Office. ISVs and systems integrators “rely” on a consistent platform and openness leads to forking.

Beat open source "champions"

In some ways Microsoft is little different from other big vendors, companies who are actually seen as "championing" open source. Companies like Oracle and IBM who are keeping their runtimes - databases or application servers - securely closed, and have bought in open source products.

Microsoft is actually more like Adobe Systems, publishing details of its Flash specs to the world but being very careful not open source the code.

2015 is seven years away and why Ramji picked this date is not clear. Perhaps, because it has taken a good seven years for IBM, Oracle, Adobe and others to devise their current stances on open source. While these companies have yet to fully open up to open source, Microsoft is behind them in terms of having a positive corporate attitude and consistent - if limited - strategy on engagement. That's thanks to the fact it's held out for so long.

The challenge for Microsoft - thanks to its size, product diversity and an unpredictable management stance on open source - is to use the next seven years to not just pull level with IBM, Oracle et al by 2015 in its corporate policy, but to actually overtake them.®