Opening up Windows to the world


Winning over the open source community was not easy, nor was convincing Microsoft senior management, an open source developer tells GORDON SMITH

GARRETT SERACK can hardly believe it himself. “Microsoft pay me to develop software they don’t have the rights to and they don’t tell me how to build it,” he says with some amazement.

A bear of a man with a cowboy hat permanently attached, Serack, a Canadian, looks every inch the independent software developer – except he is on the payroll of the world’s largest software company.

What’s more, Serack describes his job as “trying to make Windows the best platform for open source”.

No Microsoft employee could have uttered a statement like that five years ago: the open source movement for years was diametrically opposed to proprietary software providers like Microsoft.

With open source software, developers work on it and others are then encouraged to refine or improve it and in turn share those changes with everyone.

The ideological battle lines – community benefit versus closed systems and corporate profit – were drawn a long time ago; Microsoft’s attempts to reach out to the open source community still provoke suspicion in many on the other side of the barricade.

For a long time the feeling was mutual. Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer infamously described Linux as a “cancer” in 2001 and the company’s attitude to that operating system remains confrontational even as it seeks rapprochement with other parts of the open source ecosystem.

“There is a realisation that we need to be a better industry player,” says Liam Cronin of Microsoft Ireland. “We have gone from having 80,000 open source applications running on Microsoft platforms to 350,000 in one year,” he adds.

According to the website Geeknet, many of the leading projects on SourceForge (a repository for open source software code) are compatible with Windows. Cronin also points to the company’s involvement in 150 groups that set software standards.

Serack visited Dublin last week to give a presentation at OSS Barcamp, a free two-day conference for open source developers in Ireland. Event organiser Laura Czajkowski, an open source advocate, says Serack’s presence wasn’t just about optics.

Microsoft could have sent someone to give a marketing spiel but crucially, Serack speaks the same language as Barcamp’s audience. “A developer will always want to talk to a developer,” Czajkowski says.

Microsoft’s move owes much to pragmatism: many of the latest technologies on the web were built on open source products. When the company says it is listening to its customers, what it really means is it has heard the stampede to use products like Apache Web Server or the website scripting language PHP.

While no one would argue that this trend means Microsoft’s days are numbered, the company needs to remain relevant or risk being sidelined in certain areas of software development.

According to Cronin, many firms want to use a mix of proprietary and open source software rather than taking sides.

Ideologies aside, the question of time and money makes this a relevant issue for many businesses. The Irish Music Rights Organisation recently upgraded its IT systems using Microsoft technology, but it wanted them to communicate with its existing website which was built with PHP.

Spanish Point Technologies, a software development company in Dublin, was able to make the two systems work together. Spanish Point’s chief technology officer John Corley says that having to redevelop everything on Microsoft’s Net platform would have cost money and, importantly, time.

“For any developer, good architecture is good architecture, no matter what it’s developed on,” Corley says. “As somebody who works within a Microsoft partner organisation, there’s a big opportunity for us to explain to people that it’s not an either/or situation. That’s a revenue opportunity for us and an opportunity to build better systems for our customers.”

Czajkowski believes that tackling the interoperability problem also means developers with open source skills won’t be excluded from applying for jobs in companies where Microsoft technologies dominate.

“It makes developers more employable,” she says. “They’re not limited by the types of languages they have or areas they develop in.”

Winning over the open source community hasn’t been easy, but neither has convincing senior management at Microsoft, according to Serack.

He uses words like slow and evolutionary to describe the progress and recalls recently meeting with a high-level Microsoft executive where he successfully received approval for his CoApp project which aims to make it easier to develop open source applications on Windows.

“Two or three years ago it would have taken a freaking miracle to get someone to look at that and agree,” he says.

Company cultures don’t change overnight but the gradual acceptance of open source within Microsoft has the feel of a grassroots movement rather than an edict from the top down. There has been no tub-thumping speech from Steve Ballmer but ironically, that could suggest substance, not just spin.

The end result, Microsoft would have us believe, is that open source and its own proprietary software can peacefully coexist.

“There has been an evolution in Microsoft in a second way that nobody sees,” Serack argues. “In 2002, it had 45,000 employees, now there are 90,000. Microsoft is hiring people who have used open source. They’ve changed by virtue of bringing in those people and diluting the old-world mentality.”

Think of it as trying to build a house with fewer restrictions on the materials to be used. Without access to solid oak flooring or Italian marble, you might have a functional but not terribly interesting dwelling.

Now in theory the choice is wider – but at the risk of stretching the metaphor to breaking point, Microsoft would doubtless argue that a house isn’t much good without Windows.