Berkman Lunch: Open Source at Microsoft – Opportunity or Threat?

by Bryan Kirschner on November 24, 2008 02:47pm

I was recently at Harvard for two events.  The first, which I'll talk about in this blog, was part of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard lunch series.

Mario Madden and I were invited to speak at a session called "Microsoft and Open Source: Opportunity or Threat?" You can watch the whole thing online at the link - and David Weinberger liveblogged as well.

The focus of the whole thing was, to quote Karim Lakhani, our host, a "vigorous discussion."  So we had about 15 minutes to give an up-front presentation about our thoughts on  the "opportunity or threat"   issue.

The rest of the time was open discussion. So I do recommend checking out the webcast-it's tough to do the discussion justice second hand.  I will call out a couple things that won't show up in the recording.

First, Harvard really is an important source of expertise on open source.  There's a whole bunch of research that's certainly been valuable to me (on developer and corporate motivations, for example).  There are also people like Margo Seltzer  (the former CTO of Sleepycat) who I got to meet at the second event, which I'll talk about in my next blog.

Second, the whole OSS Lab at Microsoft community has emphasized the importance of dialogue for as long as we've been around.  This event drove that home once again.  Some folks followed up verbally or in mail to semi-apologize for it being a bit of a challenging environment for us.

But I didn't think it was challenging: if a question is difficult to answer because someone is working hard at making it difficult for me to answer, I'm not too keen on that. But if a question is difficult to answer because the answer is something we haven't thought about (and maybe should) or it's just a tough problem...if the questioner is willing to help me be smarter about figuring out a good answer, well, bring it on, as they say.

David Weinberger actually raised a point like this when we talked about Microsoft-released projects and contributions(from his blog):

Q: [David] Are 500 contributions a lot? Compared to the number of patents? Products?
A: [Bryan] We'll measure success when every product group considers open source.
Q: [Karim] IBM says they have 1,000 developers working on Linux, etc. Do you have any number you can point to that's similar?
A: No.

I added we don't have a KLOC or person hours target...should we?

Third, just for the record, here, I said think open source and Microsoft represents a mutual opportunity (...check out the podcast for all the reasons why.)  But that brings me to the one thing that most sticks in my mind.  A CS professor who attended told us she waited until the recording was finished because she didn't want to be rude-but that to her, we were talking about our open source strategy as if it was something new and innovative.

But from her perspective, she said she's been doing software development a long time, and this sounds just like what Microsoft did in the late 1980's, when being open to developers is what made early Microsoft products interesting to her as a developer.  So (to paraphrase): not to be rude, but why do you think this is cool?

This was funny because (as I replied) I absolutely agree with her.  Our open source strategy took a lot of learning about how open source has changed the landscape, and what it has brought that's new and different, but the fundamental principle remains the same: openness to third-party developers is a powerful and enduring principle.

And it is part of Microsoft's DNA, as we sometimes say  ("...the engineering relationship is getting back to the way it used to be in 1994-1997, which is a great relief to us," [Jeremy] Allison, said recently about Samba and Microsoft).

At one time, Microsoft was perceived to be a leader in openness through free SDKs and extensive APIs, active developer communities, published object models (wow, now you can call the Excel object model from the Powershell scripting language...) , and more.

For a number of (in my opinion) remediable reasons, from the time open source started to capture the popular imagination till today, Microsoft has not been perceived as a leader.  But I don't see any reason why we can't reach the point where the best things Microsoft has brought to users and developers and the best things open source has brought to users and developers will be decidedly better together.  I think there are some arguable examples already (XNA is high on my list: traditional coding contests plus easy paths to write and sell games, plus a growing  open source community).

The other event at Harvard was a business focused Open Source CEO Summit...which I'll talk about in my next blog.

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