Is Microsoft Mellowing Toward Open Source?

A recent blog posting by a Microsoft project manager spawned ablizzard of discussion on one of the Internet’s major tech forums andgenerated speculation that Microsoft may be ready to improve its relations with the open-source community.

Josh Ledgard, a program manager for Microsoft’s Visual Studio communityteam, sparked a flurry of comment at with his remarks atScooblog encouraging his employer to adopt amore cooperative approach toward open source.

Ledgard’s post clearly states that “The content of this siteare my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view inany way,” but that disclaimer didn’t dampen speculation about a thaw inMicrosoft’s sometimes icy relations with open-source developers.

Microsoft Manager Admits Neglect

“Engaging the ‘open-source crowd’ is something that we have historicallyneglected,” Ledgard wrote in his blog on August 20. “Hell, from theirperspective, some of our assaults on Linux are downright insulting.

“I cringe when I see the news headlines like ‘~Random Microsoft Executive~Rails Against Open Source,'” he continued. “Of course, [open-source advocates] get to fireback and be just as insulting with some of their initiatives.”

“Some bridge crossing could do both sides some good,” he added. “There is abalance to be struck somewhere between the ‘free software radicals’ and the’only for profit’ mentalities. There are several extensions, for example,to Visual Studio that we just don’t have the time to get to for one reasonor another.”

Microsoft Goes Soft on Open Source?

While Ledgard held out the possibility of open-sourcing Visual Studio, whichis used to develop Web applications, that possibility remains remote. “Microsoft has no plans along these lines to announce at this time,” a spokesperson for the company who asked that his name not be publishedtold LinuxInsider via e-mail.

To some in the open-source community, Ledgard’s conciliatory musings have the ring of truth to them. “I have seen some softening,” Russell Nelson of the Open Source Initiative told LinuxInsider.

“What I have seen lately,” he said, “is they’re at least talking about participating in the community by paying people to write code and giving it away.”

Such a gesture by Microsoft would be motivated less by selflessness than by self interest, Nelson noted. “They have figured out that their cost of maintenance, their cost of keeping software current, is less when they accept contributions from outside developers,” he said.

“They’re not doing it out of any sense of obligation, fairness or justice,” Nelson said. “They’re doing it because they think it’s going to be cheaper for them. And I think they’re right.”

Learning from OSS

Through its spokesman, Microsoft said that it believes the open-source development model plays an important role in the software ecosystem.

“In fact,” the company continued, “we believe that OSS offers great benefits in terms of community, customer feedback, code transparency and custom application development.”

“We have learned from the OSS community in the past, and the results of that learning can be seen in the Shared Source Initiative that we have put in place,” it said.

Mike Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Washington, told LinuxInsider, “Microsoft has been much more willing in the last several years — since the open-source movement — to provide more people with a look at their code.”

“They’ve instituted this Shared Source program which allows a very wide community of people to take a look at Microsoft’s code,” he explained. “The big difference [with open-source development] is that while they can look atthe code, they can’t make changes to it.”

“[Open source] certainly has had an impact on making Microsoft much more open to letting people understand how Windows works,” he maintained.

Forever Skeptical

Whatever Microsoft does to enhance its image in the open-source community, though, it still carries a lot of baggage from past tiffs with the band of developers.

“No matter what Microsoft does, the fact of the matter is that Microsoft is always going to be viewed with some amount of skepticism,” Mukul Krishna, a senior analyst with Frost & Sullivan in Palo Alto, California, told LinuxInsider.

“That’s there because of Microsoft’s legacy [with the open-source community],” he said. “It’s going to take some time before they can change that perception. They have to reposition themselves, and that’s always an expensive and difficult task to do.”

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