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Getting along famously

The relationship between Microsoft and the open source community has evolved from mutual hostility to wary co-operation.

Read time 2min 30sec

In 2001, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer infamously described Linux as a cancer devouring every piece of intellectual property it touches. Today, his company is one of the 20 largest contributors to the Linux kernel. It also has strategic alliances with a range of open source vendors, including Suse and Red Hat, and invests millions of dollars in open source initiatives every year.

So, what has changed in the past decade? According to Gianugo Rabellino, senior director of Open Source Communities at Microsoft, a combination of customer demand and changes in the tech landscape prompted Redmond to rethink its approach to open source software and the community that drives it.

"We continuously listen to what our customers tell us, and they're saying that single tech shops are a thing of the past. Today's solutions are rarely based around a single language or technology," he says. "And with the move to the cloud, the basic technology choices are becoming less relevant. What matters is how you interact with the technology - the application programming interfaces are more relevant than the source code."

As a VP of the Apache XML Project Management Committee, US-based Rabellino has some street cred with the open source community. He says he joined Microsoft three years ago based on a visible change of heart in its approach to the open source community.

Tech bridges

The Microsoft Open Technologies subsidiary where Rabellino works aims to build technical bridges between Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies. In the first year of existence, the company launched around 50 projects that are meant to ease interoperability between Microsoft's software and other vendors' software.

We're having very practical conversations with the open source community every day about moving the landscape forward.

Gianugo Rabellino, senior director of Open Source Communities, Microsoft

"We're having very practical conversations with the open source community every day about moving the landscape forward," says Rabellino. In other words, the discussions between Microsoft and the open source community these days tend to be pragmatic rather than ideological.

Some examples of the output include adding support for the Microsoft Pointer Events Web standard to Mozilla's Firefox Web browser, facilitating Linux services on the Azure cloud platform, and providing support for the Linux operating system on the Windows Server Hyper-V virtualisation technology.

Most open source vendors welcome Microsoft's moves, although there's still residual distrust. "Proprietary vendors are reaching out to the open source community out of necessity," says Sven Lesicnik, MD at open source integrator, LSD Information Technology. "Customers are demanding that software vendors be more innovative, have lower costs and support open standards. Some of them are starting to see the benefits of having a development community larger than their workforces."

First published in the September 2013 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine

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