Open-source lions fail to savage Microsoft's Roberts

Putting a Microsoft executive up against a gathering of open-source software (OSS) champions at yesterday's Govis seminar on government and open-source turned out less aggressively confrontational than many had expected.

"I think they let (MS competitive strategy manager Brett Roberts) off lightly," said one attendee at lunch, recalling a previous occasion when questions from the floor had started with Microsoft's local tax contribution, "and gone down from there".

Having raised questions of the difficulty of coordinating the open-source community's input to Linux and ensuring good maintenance of enhancements, Roberts came under attack from Igor Portugal of Auckland developer Asterisk for an address "well targeted to FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)."

Roberts responded by denying any aim to instill fear or doubt, but championing uncertainty as a virtue in a world where competitive lobbies present uncritically rosy visions of their own solutions.

Portugal asked for Microsoft's reaction at having its comfortable monopoly, security failings and doubtful business practices widely attacked by competition. "I think it's good for us that someone has kicked us in the derriere," Roberts replied.

Roberts presented a picture of a spectrum of the software world, from Microsoft's proprietary, costly closed-source line at one end to open-standard open-source free software at the other, with plenty of room for compromise and co-working in the middle, for example in Linux versions of major proprietary application suites like SAP R3.

Another attendee criticized this optimistic picture, raising the 90s "browser wars".

"Years ago everyone used Netscape, until MS Internet Explorer was bundled 'free' with the operating system. How do we know (when cooperating with Microsoft) that we're not about to get some other (proprietary offering) bunged down our neck?"

"I'll answer that in three letters; DOJ," said Roberts, alluding to the verdict, penalties and future assurances of good behavior that came out of the U.S. Department of Justice's court action against Microsoft on the browser front.

People who objected to Microsoft's business model or any shortcoming of its products could still "vote with their feet", he said.

IBM's Mary Ann Fisher gave a big-company picture of the other side, emphasizing overseas governments' favorable reception of OSS, from Germany to Brazil, and the potential for lucrative Linux-based application development being grasped by India and China particularly, as an economic stimulus to the region.

She pointed to the strength of the open-source model for "collaborative checking" of enhancements and its already high reputation in the server market with Apache and Samba. Low total cost of ownership makes it a significant force for server consolidation.

Perhaps her one point of significant agreement with Roberts was that "Linux and commercial software get along fine". She cited the co-working of IBM's Websphere and Apache. Lack of a broader range of applications was, however, a significant "gating factor" to wider adoption, she told Computerworld later.

Peter Harrison of the NZ Open Source Society pointed to a perceived shortage of training, support and advice on implementing Linux and related software as a significant issue preventing government agencies from enthusiastic adoption. NZOSS has been formed to fill that apparent lack and mediate input from the Linux community, he said.

In response to gentle criticism of OSS developers as being ego-driven, he said the developers are for the most part users as well, and the primary motive is that for most software development -- to make something that solves a problem for them.

OSS is more than a body of software and a supporting community, he said; it's a development methodology, with the emphasis on evolution, rather than the "revolutionary" big-bang launches of the closed-source vendors.

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