Craig Mundie knew he was walking into hostile territory when he came to explain Microsoft’s position on Open Source software and the GPL (General Public License) to a crowd of mostly hostile red-hat wearing Open Source hackers attending O’Reilly’s Open Source Conference. He tried to soften them up by opening his presentation with a doctored photo of him as Austin Powers’ nemesis, Dr. Evil, and Microsoft’s FreeBSD sympathizer and open .NET evangelizer David Stutz as mini-me. (In case you were wondering, Mundie later explained, they did get permission to doctor the image.)
It worked just a little. There were no thrown objects, even though Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann really did compare Microsoft to oil and lumber companies (What? No big tobacco?) who will agree to protect the environment as long as they can continue to ravage it.
Microsoft’s position in the environment, or ecosystem, of software development was a central theme in the morning’s events, which included talks by Mundie and Tiemann, followed by a panel discussion that included Brian Behlendorf, Clay Shirky, and Mozilla’s chief lizard wrangler, Mitchell Baker.
Mundie said he was here to clarify Redmond’s position: they don’t have anything against Open Source software (honest, guys!). They’re just trying to clarify people’s misunderstandings about the GPL. Dan Gillmor pressed him on this at a press conference after the panel: how come Steve Ballmer has twice called it “a cancer.” Mundie waved it off: “I know Steve, I talk to Steve.” Steve gets a little hotheaded, I guess.
Tim O’Reilly said he brought Mundie down to talk to the Open Source conference because he thinks both groups can learn from the other. “Microsoft knows something incredible about monetizing ideas.” The Open Souce community knows something incredible about making good software–things that Microsoft is trying to learn, according to both Mundie and Stutz.
But I was left wondering how these extremes could ever meet. Tiemann’s comparisons to big oil, as well as his suspicion of Microsoft’s motives, were to be expected, as were the cheers they drew from the audience. But I was a little surprised by the hisses and booes that greeted Mundie’s explanations that Microsoft is in business to make money, and that licensing intellectual property is part of that business. Even with Mundie’s graceful performance here, the level of suspicion among fringe players on both sides rises to a level of toxicity at times. Let’s hope cooler heads can keep talking.