Microsoft exec calls for calm on OSS site

Port 25, Microsoft's window into its Open Source Software Lab, is a month old and already users are doubtful the move is genuine. Upper management at Microsoft is the real roadblock to constructive dialogue, they say.

Microsoft extended an olive branch to the open source community with the launch of Port 25, but visitors to the Web site have been treating the branch as if it were poison ivy.

Port 25 is a Web site that offers a look into the Microsoft Open Source Software Lab. Launched in 2004, the lab is the software company's attempt to test interoperability between Microsoft software and open source solutions. Its other stated goal is to make IT professionals with UNIX/Linux skills more proficient in the Windows environment -- and vice versa.

But some users are skeptical.

After a month online and a deluge of snarky posts, the site's comment section has been modified to accept only logged-in members. In response to the negativity, Microsoft Lab Director Bill Hilf posted an article on the site asking for a cease-fire. The article, titled "Black Helicopters," asked for leeway and a "two-way conversation" between the skeptics and Microsoft.

Whether Microsoft can do anything to convert the open-source masses is the multibillion-dollar question. The largest proprietary software company has miles to go to convince the unbelieving OSS crowd that a cooperative relationship would benefit both parties. "Working together can make it happen," Hilf concluded in his post, but others are not so optimistic.

When a company like Microsoft says it is using the lab to "better understand open source software," past behavior bars him from believing their intentions are sincere, said the Rev. Don Parris, editor-in-chief of Linux news site LXer.com.

But instead of playing the "hate Microsoft for being Microsoft" game, Parris cited a real-world example for his mistrust: In the late 1990s Microsoft threatened to pull Windows from the Republic of Korea if it was found guilty of antitrust allegations presented against it at the time. "Even when I call Microsoft an 'economic terrorist' [in a recent LXer.com column] I don't hate Microsoft. But I do hate its unethical conduct," he said.

That was a while ago, but open source devotees have long memories. And even with Hilf presented as a friendly face for open source, Parris said he believed it was all for naught because of the executives positioned above him in the Microsoft pecking order.

"It's a top-down problem, and if that doesn't change, then anything else they do is just shooting in the wind," he said. "Bill Hilf could be a great person with a sincere love for OSS and Linux, but the people he works for conduct themselves in an unethical manner."

Critical comments appearing on the Port 25 site appear to support Parris' notion that big changes must come from the top, with one user saying in one post that "the problem with this site is that while you guys profess not to be the bad guys, your bosses have not issued the same statements."

But for Francis Poeta, the president of Cliffside Park, N.J.-based P & M Computers Inc., the issues between OSS and Microsoft have little to do with trust. "Microsoft is a publicly traded company, not an empire. It has employees, shareholders and customers -- some of whom are even open source contributors. It is in their best interest to follow and adjust to Linux and open source. It is also their fiduciary responsible to understand the competition," Poeta said.

However, if Microsoft is sincere with the Port 25 effort, Poeta recommended they use it alongside a new patch release that would include OpenSSL and possibly the ability to choose the Apache Web server instead of IIS on install media. The first would be a recognition that Linux is here and access to it is important to users, he said, while the second would be a small opening to the appeal of open source products running on Windows.

"Most users only want the application to work," Poeta said. "Who makes it or how it is licensed is irrelevant. But if a two-headed alien came tomorrow with a truly better matrix, most of us in open source would probably start to investigate and adopt it."

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