April 7, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Is Microsoft playing well with others?
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Outsiders see changes brewing in some corners of Microsoft as well.
Barry Crist was nervous when last year he became CEO of Centeris, a Bellevue, Wash., start-up that makes software to manage mixed Linux and Windows networks.
He wondered whether Microsoft would make it difficult for Centeris to develop its software, by withholding technical information or charging exorbitant licensing fees, for example.
Instead, he was surprised to find that Microsoft employees actively seek ways to work with Centeris and that they have offered to license protocols (which the company has not yet decided to do, pending a discussion on terms).
"They're softening their stance (on interoperability), and time will tell if it's legitimate or marketing," Crist said. "I think they've come to the conclusion that they would pay too stiff of a penalty from customers and regulators."
Former Microsoft employee Manny Vellon, the vice president of product development at Centeris, said that Microsoft continues to have many "fiefdoms." Some groups, such as management products, see a valid financial incentive in improving Windows interoperability, but that's not true across the board, he said.
"I have seen a change in behavior. Microsoft is more open to talk to people who are involved with Linux," said Markus Rex, the vice president of Suse Linux at Novell. "It's better for everybody--us, customers and Microsoft--but it's still really hard."Nuanced approach
Hilf said that an important role he plays at Microsoft is to identify business opportunities through better interoperability with third-party products, even rival ones.
For example, Microsoft worked out a partnership with JBoss, an open-source Java server software company, and with SugarCRM, an open-source application company that decided to use one of Microsoft's shared-source licenses.
Although SugarCRM and JBoss software each competes with different divisions within Microsoft, Hilf noted that promoting use of those products on Windows is in Microsoft's interest as a "platform provider."
JBoss CEO Marc Fleury said that Microsoft executives are clever enough to use open source as a competitive weapon. Partnering with JBoss helps the software giant prop up a potential competitor to its own rival IBM, for example.
"Microsoft was more than happy to give IBM a taste of its own (open-source) medicine," Fleury said. "Of all the large vendors, Microsoft is the most pragmatic."
With growing acceptance of open-source software in the industry at large, Hilf says that Microsoft employees, in general, are becoming more comfortable with open-source products and practices.
"There's a maturation of the culture?To mature, you need to understand that you're not competing with some ghostly specter," he said.
He called work on standards and interoperability "one of the most progressive areas of work" within Microsoft.
IBM does not see it that way. Microsoft's decision to not support OpenDocument, for example, shows that the company continues to favor locking customers into its products rather than compete on the basis of standards, noted Bob Sutor, IBM's vice president of standards and open source.
"Standards level the playing field--and if you have dominant market share, you don't want to level the playing field," Sutor said.
Many executives wondered whether Microsoft might end up taking an uneven approach to standards support, as the company above all relies on tying its many products to Windows.
"Most of Microsoft's server technologies, for example, started their lives as subordinates to the Microsoft desktop," said Scott Dietzen, chief technology officer at open-source collaboration software company Zimbra. "Moving to a 'net-centric' view, in which customers can mix and match clients and servers, is a radical departure from that historic sweet spot."
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