How Bill Gates changed Microsoft's stance on open source

When you think of Microsoft, friend of open source probably isn't one of the things thy comes to mind, but the company's been keeping an eye on the community for a while now. A new article from Wired shows how the company has been changing its stance, maybe even to the point of embracing it.

For three years, Sam Ramji served as Microsoft's head of open source software. One of his duties included bringing Bill Gates and other Microsoft execs up to speed on open source at a briefing every few months. One fateful day in the summer of 2008, the meeting took a different turn when the question of whether the company should actually start using open source software, pitting Ramji and former chief software architect Ray Ozzie against the other execs, with Bill Gates in the middle.

Ramji and Ozzie pointed out the advantages open source software would bring to the table, while the legal team laid out a plan of how it could work from their standpoint. The others took the usual standpoint, utterly opposed to the idea. Bill Gates had other ideas, taking to the whiteboard to show how it could work. That pretty much settled it.
 

That meeting sowed the seeds for everything that's come since, from their work with Hadoop to the recent move to adopt Linux on Windows Azure. Even though neither Ramji or Ozzie are still with the company, their plans for the company are just starting to come into fruitation, and they are defining the future of Microsoft.

In the days of old, Linux and open source was Microsoft's greatest foes because it represented a threat to their core businesses, from Office to Windows. With services like Azure, it doesn't matter any more. Microsoft makes their money by providing the framework these applications run on, so it only makes sense to make it work for as any kinds of applications as their clients want. If some of those clients want to run applications that have traditionally been Microoft's enemies, it doesn't really matter any more, and there's no reason not to embrace Linux on Azure.

As Bill Hilf, Microsoft's first head of open source software and the guy behind hiring Ramji in the first place, puts it: “We want to offer as many types of applications and as many types of systems as we can, so they can help that flywheel spin…. We don’t see [open source] on Azure as altruistic. We see it as a way to drive business.”

Now, Microsoft is actually starting to contribute code back to the open source community, taking an active position alongside companies like IBM and Google. Still, it hasn't been a painless process. Ramji and his team began prototyping a cloud service that ran on nothing but open source software, like Amazon's cloud services. At the same time, other minds in the company were toiling away on what would become Windows Azure.

Ramji's project ended up causing a lot of discomfort in the company, but he says that's a good thing. “Microsoft is at its best when it’s freaking out. That’s just its mentality. It’s a crisis-oriented company.”

Even though he's no longer with the company, Ramji's influence is still alive and well at Microsoft. In fact, he might end up looking like one of the most influential people at the company, despite his short tenure, as his ideas continue to shape the emerging businesses Microsoft is betting big on.

And what about Bill Gates? He might seem like the bogeyman to a lot of people in the open source community, but if he hadn't spoken up at that fateful 2008 meeting, Microsoft's cloud efforts could've ended up looking drastically different. It's clear that he actually does get open source software, and its advantages.

Ron Schnell, an open source fan who was part of the Technical Commitee that handled Microsoft's consent decree following the 2001 antitrust case with the US government, sums it up. “Personally, I think that the chapter on Microsoft on open source has yet to be written. Open source solutions don’t generally look good on the balance sheet. The question is — with the anticipated success of cloud computing, which would reduce the need for desktop operating systems like Windows, can Microsoft continue to see the sort of profits they’ve been seeing anyway?”

Image courtesy of Network World

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31 Comments

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Basic biz practices really that all companies should be following, maybe Microsoft should be doing more of etc. While they were forced into the position where it made sense (with not so much to lose), HP & their webOS is another example along the same lines. Biz is all about risk/reward after all -- it's just that lots of people are risk adverse by nature, hence the comment by Ramji: "... Microsoft is at its best when it's freaking out." Like the old Joplin tune says: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..." [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_and_Bobby_McGee ] That's also a part of what makes many start-ups so lucrative -- it can be easier for a larger company to buy whatever than to get employees out of their comfortable, risk adverse routines or roles.

Schnell OTOH seems maybe not to get it, IMHO anyway with the included quote: "The question is -- with the anticipated success of cloud computing, which would reduce the need for desktop operating systems like Windows, can Microsoft continue to see the sort of profits they've been seeing anyway?” Stuff, And Change, happens -- it's something every individual & company deals with. If you're not evolving & growing you're in decline -- if you stand still you're left behind. That's always been at the core of Microsoft, Apple, & Google, not to mention companies like Intel & AMD. Go back a decade or more & Microsoft was not just anticipating today, but trying to push the world to get here. That's not to say today arrived exactly as planned, but you get the idea -- to say any of those 5 companies did nothing to prepare for the future is kind of clueless. To think that any of those same companies put all of their eggs in one basket is actually a bit silly.

That's not intended to trash Schnell BTW -- not everyone wants, needs, or does think in terms of business.

xpclient said,
Changed their stance? They haven't even incorporated an open source project into any of their major products.

read the comment above you =D You think MS is willing to release their Kernel?

However, they should, just to show the world what a proper kernel looks like.

This is the key, and was a major part of even early open source debates in Microsoft...

"while the legal team laid out a plan of how it could work from their standpoint. "

The GPL and other OSS licenses were limiting, and are horrible, as they 'constrain' what users can and MUST do.

Microsoft created their own OSS license that basically says, do anything you want with it, and we expect and require you to do NOTHING. Which is simple and light license, and is TRULY FREE and OPEN, and doesn't have the rules and and horrid lock in requirements GPL and other OSS licenses do.

As for the 'legal', Microsoft could NOT use many of the OSS licenses, especially GPL that was changed to 'open' things it touched and had nothing to do with the licensed software. If Microsoft would have taken from GPL code under v3, they would of had to release the source to NT's kernel architecture just to use the GPL licensed software. (Which was insane and has hurt OSS than than it helped anything.)

So to avoid the legal pitfalls of the crap OSS licenses, they made their own that didn't create any restrictions or requirements, and is one of if not the most OPEN/FREE mainstream license.

GPL specifically changed v2 and v3 to PURPOSELY prevent software under the license from working with closed source or being supported by closed source companies like Microsoft.

it's interesting how the media tries to mold bill gates into something that might fit into a savior-cum-innovator's shoes. now that steve jobs has died.

i have no lost love for jobs, but this is simply freaking disgusting. just look at the number of such articles posted by the pathetic losers on neowin alone. simply disgusting.

Microsoft does not like Linux.

I wonder why will Windows8 have a feature that will not allow Linux to be installed side by side with W8 ?

And what was with the heavy handed war against Linux when Windows 7 was released ?
Best Buy and Future Shop employees in particular was given presentations that painted Linux in a VERY BAD light, painted Windows 7 as the best thing ever released.

Alley Cat said,
Microsoft does not like Linux.

I wonder why will Windows8 have a feature that will not allow Linux to be installed side by side with W8 ?

And what was with the heavy handed war against Linux when Windows 7 was released ?
Best Buy and Future Shop employees in particular was given presentations that painted Linux in a VERY BAD light, painted Windows 7 as the best thing ever released.


its not windows that locks out linux, its the new BIOS system that has the ability to do so, this is NOT created or designed by Microsoft.

And Linux is godawfull for the general public, it still is. Mainly because its support is HORRID.
Good luck in their support IRC channels, hoping someone wants to help you and is not makig fun of you because you came from windows.

For windows, if theres a problem, you can call microsoft and they'll fix it for you. You can call 1-3 times (not sure how much) a year with a default windows license for ANY issue you have!

For linux, its mere LUCK if your computer will work flawlessly on a new install. Hoping the drivers are available without having to 'hack' your own system to get them to work.
Oh and best yet, if theres a new version of the distro you use, you risk losing drivers

Haters be hating.

Oh ye, what company contributed most to the Linux 3 kernel?
What company even HAS its own Unix kernel?
What company made a whole new OS and released this Open Source?

Lachlan said,
Love the open source symbol is trademarked.. so ironic. hah

Just common sense really... charities can get robbed the same way any biz can, not that open source is a charity, but just trying to make the point. It's why open source &/or freeware is (C) & licensed -- if not someone would come along, claim it, & start charging everyone using it.

smooth3006 said,
I just wish balmer would be fired and bill would return. Enough with this "lets save the world" stuff.

Don't be that selfish! Millions of peoples could benefits from his charity organization!

FarCry3r said,

Don't be that selfish! Millions of peoples could benefits from his charity organization!

Its not being selfish. I appreciate his save the world efforts. But i think microsoft needs him.

I never really saw Microsoft as opposed to Open Source in general but with the GPL and other Copyleft licenses specifically. It just so happens that many of the big name Open Source projects and advocates promote Copyleft licenses and Microsoft has been quite vocal in the past against them without drawing a clear distinction between them and the Open Source movement in general. I don't see their opposition to Copyleft licenses as being any weaker today but it is nice to see they are drawing that distinction more clearly and contributing more.

Asmodai said,
I never really saw Microsoft as opposed to Open Source in general but with the GPL and other Copyleft licenses specifically. It just so happens that many of the big name Open Source projects and advocates promote Copyleft licenses and Microsoft has been quite vocal in the past against them without drawing a clear distinction between them and the Open Source movement in general. I don't see their opposition to Copyleft licenses as being any weaker today but it is nice to see they are drawing that distinction more clearly and contributing more.

I'd support that view. Microsoft never was opposed to open source (although they were more or less the first closed-software company in existence), but they were - and IMHO always be - opposed to copyleft/the FSF. One has to just look at the bare foundation of Windows to see that they use open source: e.g. BSD stuff (tools, sockets,…)

Interesting read. I like this line:

“Microsoft is at its best when it's freaking out. That's just it's mentality. It's a crisis-oriented company.”

That is so very true... LOL

It is good to see that Microsoft has opened up a bit and accepted Open Source software where it clearly benefits their business model. But I don't see MS doing something stupid like releasing MS Office for Linux. They would risk Windows too much if they did that IMHO.

Shadrack said,
It is good to see that Microsoft has opened up a bit and accepted Open Source software where it clearly benefits their business model. But I don't see MS doing something stupid like releasing MS Office for Linux. They would risk Windows too much if they did that IMHO.

The value/cost ratio of releasing Office for Linux is way too small.

Shadrack said,
It is good to see that Microsoft has opened up a bit and accepted Open Source software where it clearly benefits their business model. But I don't see MS doing something stupid like releasing MS Office for Linux. They would risk Windows too much if they did that IMHO.

IMO, linux users are all MS haters (unlike Apple users who like MS, sometimes), so why bother ? It will either be pirated or ignored at the most.

Anthonyd said,

IMO, linux users are all MS haters (unlike Apple users who like MS, sometimes), so why bother ? It will either be pirated or ignored at the most.

Perhaps a vast majority of them are but certainly not all

Anthonyd said,

IMO, linux users are all MS haters (unlike Apple users who like MS, sometimes), so why bother ? It will either be pirated or ignored at the most.

If Microsoft released a good product for Linux and hosted a Linux repository for debs and rpms so that we could pull updates directly with all our other system updates, I would most certainly pay for that product if I needed it. I don't "hate" Microsoft. I don't necessarily agree with everything they believe in, but I'm not too good to pay for a good product if it's made available on the system I prefer to use. (Linux)

Gerowen said,

If Microsoft released a good product for Linux and hosted a Linux repository for debs and rpms so that we could pull updates directly with all our other system updates, I would most certainly pay for that product if I needed it. I don't "hate" Microsoft. I don't necessarily agree with everything they believe in, but I'm not too good to pay for a good product if it's made available on the system I prefer to use. (Linux)


If whatever you've said is true, then perhaps you're one out of, I don't know, a million to do that?

Anthonyd said,

IMO, linux users are all MS haters (unlike Apple users who like MS, sometimes), so why bother ? It will either be pirated or ignored at the most.

Not all of them. I use Linux periodically and would appreciate MS Office be made available for it. Won't happen, but I can dream.

Arthax said,
I doubt most open-source advocates can afford their next meal of the day let alone actually pay for software.

I doubt if you suddenly died that anyone on here would really care less.
Stop spreading random crap unless you've got something useful to add.

I would buy office for *nix if it was ever released, I switched over to using linux for everything now and seeing as only office 2003 is the latest office support on wine...

Anthonyd said,

IMO, linux users are all MS haters (unlike Apple users who like MS, sometimes), so why bother ? It will either be pirated or ignored at the most.

Haters are haters, regardless their likes/dislikes, or should I say excuses. You can easily find them wherever there's any rivalry or competition.

Far as MS Ofc being used illegally, happens now. Porting Ofc to *nix you're increasing the number of potential users so yeah, more people could/would use it legally & not.