Trip to Microsoft

Yesterday, I went down to Microsoft’s Reading offices, with Jono, Stuart and Ade.

Nick McGrath, UK Head of Platform Strategy, and Nick Barley, UK Director of Marketing, had invited us down to discuss how Microsoft and the open source software world sit together. As Microsoft’s UK operation is almost entirely Sales and Marketing, both Nicks are at its top tier.

I wasn’t overly sure what to expect from the day. Only last year, Nick McGrath was quoted in the press trotting out the same old “open source development process creates fundamental security problems” stuff. Nick Barley, who moved to Microsoft from Oracle, was, along with McGrath, one of the main faces of the notorious Get the Facts tour.

Call me cynical but my first thought was that these guys were primarily interested in talking, through us, to LugRadio‘s 15,000 regular downloaders. Once we got there, it was clear McGrath and Barley were genuinely ready to listen. A number of times, McGrath assured us that Microsoft wants to “play nicely in the sandpit”. They know, he said, that Linux and other open source software won’t go away. Hearing the phrase “Linux will be around forever”, I came to think the giant was now aware of a future in which it was one of several players and no longer able to sweep aside everything else in its path.

The discussion was friendly and free-flowing. It was almost like being on a first date with a friend of a friend. Your mutual pal has told you plenty about each other, and you’ve probably heard bits from others in your circle of friends. Hey, maybe you even met briefly at a few parties. Now, though, you get to find out about each other first-hand.

We quickly got onto the company’s relaxed attitude to its employee’s blogs. Apparently, provided they don’t break non-disclosure agreements, they’re free to write about whatever they please. (Thinking of the photo of Macs being delivered to Redmond story? See the blogger’s own thoughts on why Microsoft wasn’t to blame.) Microsoft employees, it appears, have a good time of it. Free drinks, free fruit, flexible hours, child care, great food and an office that hands out mice, keyboards, etc without question.

Nick McGrath was particularly keen to tell us about Microsoft’s new drive towards interoperability. “Our customers tell us they want interoperability”, he said. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s customers must be content with interoperability on Microsoft’s terms. Stuart, in particular, made the point that their world of partnership agreements and MS applications reading data from third-party software was a long way from what we think of as interoperability. Nick Barley took the point that true interoperability is all about publishing your interfaces and standards, so that it’s open even to the people you don’t like or make money from.

This was where I began to wonder if Microsoft people really understand why we’re into free software, why having open source and open standards is important to us. They were keen to tell us how Microsoft is changing but, throughout the conversation, they regularly confused open source software with non-commercial software. I got the impression that Microsoft people think we’re into open source because it’s free of charge. The idea of software freedom – as in speech – didn’t really come into it.

Apparently, though, all Microsoft people are given training to ensure they understand the distinction between open source and free software.

Inevitably, software patents came up. How can Microsoft work with the open source community when it continues to patent so many software ideas? Disappointingly, we were given an eloquent defence of copyright, not patents. “Why patent saving as XML? It’s the equivalent of patenting getting water from a tap”, I suggested. The conversation moved on.

The complexity and unfairness of client access licences was another opportunity to highlight some of the frustrations of using Microsoft software that open source software users don’t face. CALs mean Microsoft doesn’t have to charge you three times as much for, SQL Server, for example, we were told. The idea that the server licence fee was quite enough already didn’t seem to wash. Perhaps the fact that the highly capable MySQL and PostgreSQL have no complicated license free structures is responsible for a promised upcoming simplification of CALs.

I was keen to know why Microsoft had, initially, adopted such an emotive approach to Linux. If Microsoft is proud of its products, why not promote them on their merits, rather than campaign negatively against its upstart rival? Seriously, what was the whole “Linux is a cancer” thing? Much as Bill Hilf had during our interview with him on LugRadio, the Nicks agreed that such comments had been less than helpful. Microsoft’s approach to open source software has matured, the guys told us.

McGrath is a Microsoft man to the core; he loves that company. From our meeting, I’d say he understands that Microsoft can no longer behave as though no alternative exists. Nonetheless, he still sees the world from a position of ultimate dominance.

Barley, relatively new to Microsoft, knows that there is a world elsewhere.

I enjoyed the experience immensely. The people we met were genuinely interested to know what the open source community think of them and how we could all work together more closely. They really took note of what we said and were refreshingly honest at times.
Whatever you may feel about their licensing and business practices, it’s hard not to be impressed by Microsoft. However, giants move slowly. They’re aware of the open source community, their labs run more distros than I’ve heard of and their developers are free to open source small bits of software that stand no chance of making Microsoft any money. I think the quote the will stay with me longest, though, is:

“That depends on what you mean by interoperability.”