May 16, 2006 5:42 PM PDT

Microsoft dallies with open source

Microsoft's love-hate relationship with open-source software can be epitomized by recent efforts to enhance interoperability and lure developers to Windows.

In December, the software giant introduced a pilot program called NXT to make it easier for independent software vendors (ISVs) with non-Microsoft technologies, including Linux and Unix developers, to tailor their products to the Microsoft operating system.

Run by Microsoft's partners, the NXT program offers software development support, technical briefings, testing and marketing campaign funding to these software makers. A representative of the Redmond, Wash.-based company said the program is still in the pilot stage.

Bill Hilf, a platform strategy technology manager at Microsoft, insisted there is no conflict between the goals of the company's open-source lab and the NXT program. Hilf runs the lab, which tries to marry open-source software with Microsoft products.

"I won't call the NXT program contradictory to the Linux interoperability lab, because it only targets ISVs who are looking to expand their offerings beyond the Linux and Unix platforms," Hilf told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

The interoperability lab focuses on getting products from open-source software makers, such as JBoss, to work on the Microsoft platform, he said. "For example, we often collaborate with JBoss, but in certain areas, we might compete with them. Its competition and cooperation," Hilf explained.

"Over time, as you see the open-source marketplace maturing and becoming more commercial, I think you'll see more of that kind of dynamic. It's not something that's unique to Microsoft," he said. Hilf added that IBM and Oracle also compete and at the same time cooperate with open-source vendors.

To give the work of Microsoft's interoperability lab greater visibility in the open-source community, it launched a Web site called Port 25 last month at LinuxWorld in Boston.

"As we do research and analysis in our lab, we're finding that more and more people are pretty interested in how we get different systems working together," Hilf said.

But the initiative has drawn flak from some quarters in the open-source community, judging from the responses posted on Port 25 blogs.

One reader wrote: "I fail to understand how Microsoft can help the open-source community more than (open source) can help itself."

"Microsoft never gets involved to help others; they get involved to help themselves," the reader added. "We have to satisfy ourselves knowing that they wasted all this time and money on this lab and paying these fine employees."

Hilf has taken reactions from the open-source community in his stride. "It's really OK to be skeptical," he said. "Although there were a few loud individuals who were skeptical--and sometimes caustic--such conversations have tapered off as people start to realize that what we're doing provides value to the (open-source) community."

Meanwhile, as part of its shared source efforts, Microsoft has set up a new online repository for collaborative code-writing projects. The software maker will use the site for its own efforts being developed under Shared Source licenses. Developers who start projects on CodePlex can use any license they feel fits their project the best, but will "have access to and be encouraged to use the new Shared Source licenses," Microsoft said.

For now, CodePlex is a beta site, and is home to IronPython and several other homegrown shared source projects as well as a few outside efforts.

Josiah Ritchie, who provides technology products for an international Christian mission, noted on Port 25: "I'm glad to see Microsoft taking interest in interoperability. There are many open-source projects that I'd like to see able to authenticate against Active Directory. Work in that area would be priceless for me."

Hilf joined Microsoft two years ago to steer the company's work in open source-related projects. So far, his lab's activities have contributed to the company's push into high-performance computing--an area that he concedes is Linux's stronghold.

"We built a large cluster and help (Microsoft's product teams) understand what attracts developers and administrators to use Linux in that environment," he said.

Hilf added that his team has contributed patches to the open-source community, particularly for Samba, which connects Linux machines to Windows networks, the Gaim instant messenger and the Apache Web server.

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report. Aaron Tan reported for ZDNet Asia from Singapore.

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