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Open Source

Microsoft director out to 'debunk mythology around open source'

"The Free Software movement is dead. Linux doesn't exist in 2007. Even Linus has got a job today." Controversial statements from the head of Microsoft's Linux Labs, Bill Hilf.

Speaking on the last leg of a tour of Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, Bill Hilf, more formally known as Microsoft's platform strategy director, was in the region to "be descriptive and intelligent in giving people an understanding of open source and debunk a lot of the mythology around open source."

He said that most customers run a distribution - RedHat, Novell, Suse or Mandriva. Most of the work on maintaining the Linux kernel is done by developers working for these distributions, he noted

"They are full-time employees, with 401K stock options. Some work for IBM or Oracle. What does that mean? It means that Linux doesn't exist any more in 2007. There is no free software movement. If someone says Linux is about Love, Peace and Harmony, I would tell them to do their research. There is no free software movement any more. There is big commercial [firms] like IBM and there is small commercial [firms] like Ubuntu," he said.

The former IBM employee said that IBM's work on Linux is aimed at creating more reliable storage solutions and a more reliable mainframe.

"People ask me, why are you doing this? Why did you do the Novell deal? Why aren't you doing Office on Linux? The summary is quite simple. Growth of the ecosystem equals growth of the [Windows] platform," he said.

Hilf said that the Linux phenomenon had nothing to do with Linux, but rather it had a lot to do with Apache, MySQL and PHP. It was those applications which pulled Linux up with it, the "Visual Basic of open source."

Hilf described Microsoft's interest in open source as a business interest, without altruistic community love or with marketing campaigns to make you feel better. Rather, because 67 percent of the world's servers and over 90 percent of the desktops run Windows, open source developers are interested in running their applications on Windows and Hilf's role is to make sure that the Windows platform provides the features needed by these developers.

"That's the dirty little secret. When I talk to open source developers, at least half are talking about Windows, from SugarCRM, MySQL, PHP. Every single one," he said.

Hilf said that Microsoft always faced a challenge in balancing interoperability and innovation. The current lawsuit with the EU competition commission is one case in point.

"The [EU's] request was, 'you have to be as interoperable with non-windows systems as you are with your own. That way we can guarantee you're not going to leverage your market leading position to disadvantage others.' We've participated actively to explain why it's not a simple problem; there's this complex balance between innovation and standardisation. I think the EU has been learning," he said.

In other words, making something standard happens after it has been built. One example of this innovator's dilemma was a next generation interface being developed in the labs at Redmond, similar to the virtual 3D interface used in the Hollywood film Minority Report.

"I've seen this first hand, and it's complete science fiction. He looks at the computer screen and uses his fingers (in the air) instead of a keyboard or a mouse. Brilliant guy with a PhD in optical science, truly creating the next input device. But when I ask him how he would make this a standard and work with Linux, he replies to me, 'no idea.' We're breaking the glass ceiling, going where nobody has gone before. There won't be a standard there, there won't be one for at least a decade," he said.

Hilf accused his former employers, IBM, of starting a standards war simply because they wanted a part of the Office market. People do not want ODF (Open Document Format), but they want a way to control the information they create, he claimed.

"Standards is the first thing you go to in the competitive strategy playbook. Of course, IBM and Sun won't say that on the record. You create a problem that didn't exist and use standards to force a problem," he said.

So what does Hilf think of Vista and future development trends now that the long gestation period is over?

For the desktop, Hilf sees a new frontier in terms of rich client programming. With more and more services by Amazon, Google, Yahoo and, of course, Microsoft being run as services rather than as software installed locally, it will be up to the desktop to provide richer functionality.

One of the big players today is Adobe (formerly Macromedia) Flash. Today, Microsoft seems to be nibbling away at the same market as Flash through Vista's Windows Presentation Format-Extended (WPF-E). Hilf said that was defnitely not anti-competitive and it was simply competition.

"We have thousands of pages, thanks to the Department of Justice. There's no lack of clarity on what cheating could be. When I joined Microsoft, I spent a week in antitrust training to know exactly what the boundary conditions were," he said.

"The goal for Flash is a rich web experience. That's also our target for WPF and WPF-E. I'm just hoping we give it a real name as WPF-E just doesn't roll off the tongue. It's not for us to be Flash, but it's for a million people to develop WPF-E applications," he said.

A year ago, someone developing a web service had to know all sorts of technologies such as UDDI, SOAP, WSDL and other "plumbing." Recently, Microsoft simplified all that with the Windows Communication Foundation (formerly known as Indigo). This means that a web service developer can simply say, "turn knob", rather than go through a whole library of low-level commands. This led to a multitude of new web applications being written, thus advancing the Microsoft platform plan. Hilf hopes that WPF-E will repeat this success story on the desktop.