Give Brad Smith credit: he didn't wuss out in front of a potentially hostile crowd.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Microsoft's top lawyer got on stage at a open-source conference in San Francisco and tried to find common ground with the audience.
In the end, it was mission accomplished, and he commanded a nice ovation from the crowd. Still, it's clear that a big divide separating Microsoft from open-source advocates remains.
Smith was sent to the conference to offer another olive branch. Open source raises all sorts of intriguing--and thorny--problems for Microsoft, which still struggles to coexist with a movement that's seemingly gaining strength by the day. And Microsoft still has its work cut out in convincing the open-source world that it's ready to bury the hatchet and repair what's been a tempestuous relationship.
Listening to the questions from audience members was instructive. A lot of people in the community still distrust Microsoft's motives--let alone what they dismiss as fig leaf attempts to participate in the community.
Smith repeatedly sought to persuade the audience that Microsoft's good intentions were genuine. Maybe they are, but that's where the company is hard-pressed to convince the diehards.
Most of the people I spoke with yesterday want Microsoft to contribute back to the open-source community in a big way. The pledge last month not to sue over open source and foster more interoperability was a good first step, they acknowledged. But they want a lot more than soothing words.
I think Smith got the message, though he and the rest of Redmond's top brass are still trying to figure this one out. He went out of his way to agree that the likely future of software would be marked by "multiple business models" and that the market was big enough for everyone to coexist.
I'm not going to alibi for Microsoft. When it comes to open source, the company's been so dumb and arrogant that you have to wonder whether someone spiked the water supply in Redmond. But some folks don't want to grok that times change, and even idealogues soften their thinking when confronted with reality.
Toward the end of the question-and-answer session, one guy dredged up a list of silly comments made by senior managers and threw it back in Smith's face. Does Microsoft still believe open source is the equivalent of cancer or communism, he asked?
Smith didn't take the bait, and in his lawyerly best manner, he made it clear that Microsoft has turned the page and moved on.
Probably good advice for all concerned.