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Microsoft – carefully – edges closer to the open-source community

Despite a rocky historical relationship with the open-source community, Microsoft's recent decision to create a specialized Open Technologies spinoff is the latest phase of its recent rapprochement with the open world -- as well as a canny defensive measure.

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Jeffrey Hammond, a principal analyst for Forrester Research, says that the aim of the Open Technologies announcement is twofold.

"I think the big idea is that Microsoft wants to get more involved in the open-source community. And in order to do that they need to set up some firewalls to protect IP that they have in their corporate environment," he says. "Basically, what they want to be able to do is have a way that their lawyers will allow them to participate in open-source communities and even work with [them] without potentially infecting existing products."

The current crop of developers -- which Hammond refers to as the "Github generation" -- is heavily focused on working within open-source software communities, whose importance to the business software marketplace has grown rapidly.

"Those [communities] are now the planets around which vendors spin," he says.

Competitors such as VMware, according to Hammond, could be the ones in the most trouble due to Microsoft's new focus on open standards and interoperability. The virtualization specialist has seen its relationship with the open-source cloud community sour of late.

The picture from 451 Research analyst Jay Lyman is similar.

"I think the spinoff is good for Microsoft in that it shows continued evolution and maturation of Microsoft's strategy, thinking and technology as it relates to open-source software ... and I think it should help Microsoft grow its community and its developer and user following in some key areas," he says.

Cloud and virtualization are "absolutely" important factors in Microsoft's new openness, according to Lyman.

It's important, however, not to confuse openness with altruism, he notes.

"They're not doing this for the betterment of open-source software, they're doing it for Microsoft," he says. "And that's perfectly legitimate. ... Open-source software lays the groundwork for practically all of cloud computing."

Moreover, the creation of a totally separate entity could suggest the presence of a difference of opinion among key Redmond decision-makers.

"This shows that the larger corporation ... is still unsure of how to deal with open-source software and where open-source software does or doesn't fit at Microsoft," he says. "It appears to have split off something that is deserving of separation."

While community reaction to Microsoft's announcement has been relatively muted, Canonical CEO Jane Silber welcomed the company to the fold: "It's encouraging to see leaders such as Microsoft recognizing the value of open source and the role it plays in the industry."

Red Hat executive Paul Cormier, too, stated in an official blog post this morning that the company welcomed Microsoft's growing participation in the open-source world.

"Our hope is that this formal announcement signals the commitment of Microsoft to engage with open source communities in a way that will ultimately provide choice in the marketplace. An open world is a better world," he wrote.

Nevertheless, some subtle references in Cormier's statement to the turbulence of Microsoft's past relationship with open source and the company's "surprising" recent about-face highlight the deep mistrust many in the community still feel toward the software titan.

Lyman says that it's incumbent on Microsoft to bolster its reputation with the open-source community through full participation and meaningful contributions. As it stands, however, the company has a lot of grievances to overcome.

"It continues this dichotomy -- is Microsoft pro-open source or anti-open source?" Although Open Technologies is undoubtedly a foot in the "pro" camp, Lyman says it would be premature to say the company is fully supportive of open source.

That said, Forrester's Hammond argues that Open Technology doesn't need to be viewed with undue skepticism.

"Critics will always be very suspicious of Microsoft's motives, but I don't see what they're doing as substantially different than what IBM does, what Google does. Maybe they start from a little bit further back in their thinking because of how dominant they were in the era of commercial software ... but I don't see what they're doing as any different than any other large enterprise software vendor that is recognizing the reality of what's happening in the open-source space," he says.

As Microsoft continues to move -- albeit deliberately -- toward a wider embrace of open-source, the company's eye, as ever, will be on the bottom line.

"The reality is, as Red Hat has proved, that you can make billions in the open-source market," Hammond notes. That reality is undoubtedly on the minds of Microsoft's leaders as the company looks to a more open world.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.


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