Microsoft making Penguin overtures

During a Microsoft media get-together in Auckland in March, its general manager for the public sector in Asia-Pacific and greater China said a curious thing: "Linux will be with us for the foreseeable future and we need to be interoperable with it."

During a Microsoft media get-together in Auckland in March, its general manager for the public sector in Asia-Pacific and greater China said a curious thing: “Linux will be with us for the foreseeable future and we need to be interoperable with it.”

A whole raft of interpretations can be fished out of that statement. For starters, it points to Microsoft not having much confidence in SCO’s kamikaze mission actually having any chance of sinking the open source carrier.

Whether or not this policy change will result in Microsoft playing nicely with the open source community is another matter. I think it’s apparent that Microsoft has discovered that it cannot compete with open source in a traditional fashion because, well, open source isn’t your traditional proprietary software house.

Maybe this is the start of the cloaked “embrace and extend” strategy, which will see Microsoft co-opting Linux eventually? If you look at recent Microsoft-ware like Services for Unix 3.5, which allows you to run GPL software on Windows, you could be forgiven for thinking so. If Microsoft ships SFU with Windows XP, or even integrates it into the OS, Win32 would become the biggest platform for open source software, albeit indirectly.

I decided to poke Chris Sharp, Microsoft’s Singapore-based director of platform strategy for the Asia-Pacific and greater China region – a huge area, incidentally – about Microsoft cosying up to Linux.

Asked if being interoperable with Linux is a turnaround from the past Microsoft position, Sharp says: “We need to interoperate with other operating systems such as Linux, much in the same way as we interoperate with mainframes and even Macintosh.”

Okay, that’s fair enough, but isn’t Linux a competitor for Windows? Not so, apparently; Sharp says: “It is our contention, and it is backed up by people like Gartner, that Linux is gaining market share not at Windows’ expense, but at the expense of Unix.”

Poor old Unix. Not only is SCO sullying its name, now both Microsoft and Linux are kicking it in the goolies.

The new policy towards Linux is customer-driven, according to Sharp.

“Over the past 12 months, Microsoft has looked at what customers and partners have been telling it, which is that they live in a heterogeneous world and that they need to interoperate in those environments.”

Apparently, the interoperability with Linux clamour from customers got so loud that Microsoft could no longer turn a deaf ear to it.

The interesting thing about Chris Sharp is that he is actually an ex-Penguinista. Sharp was with Red Hat Asia-Pacific before joining Microsoft. He didn’t comment on my question about whether or not he got the job because of Microsoft’s interoperability drive with Linux, but says if he’d been one of the more religious members in the open source community, then “this would never have happened”.

Sharp agrees that it’s easier for a Microsoftie to move to the open source side than vice versa, but also stated he wouldn’t trade his experience at Red Hat for the world. “I have a lot of respect for many of the people in the open source world,” Sharp says.

So, do Sharp and his immediate colleagues run any open source software at the moment? With SFU 3.5 handy and out of respect for open source developers, does he have at least the bash shell tucked away on his computer? Sadly, no: “We all run pretty bog standard Microsoft desktops here,” Sharp says.

Oh well. One step at the time, I guess.

Saarinen is an Auckland IT consultant and IDG contributor. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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