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Bill Hilf, General Manager, Microsoft Platform Strategy

Bill HilfIn the eyes of some in the open source community, Microsoft has long been the poster child of everything that is bad with proprietary closed software and vendor lock-in.

In recent times, the icy divide and the tremendous animosity between users of Microsoft's products and those who use open source products has thawed greatly. Earlier this month, a Microsoft executive delivered a keynote at the LinuxWorld conference in Boston for the first time ever.

At the show, Bill Hilf, general manager for Microsoft's platform strategy, talked about all the interoperability work that Microsoft is undertaking between Windows and Linux, as well as his role with Microsoft's Linux and Open Source Software Lab.

Hilf recently sat down with internetnews.com to talk about a number of contentious issues, including the GPL, Microsoft Office on Linux, reverse engineering of Microsoft's intellectual property by open source projects and more.

Q: What is the difference between your role and your direction and what Jason Matusow was doing?

I'm responsible for how we think about open source software across the company and Jason basically gave birth to the Shared Source Initiative, worked on it for five years and then handed that part of the program over to me.

Shared source is how we think about licensing for the community. There are many other dimensions to open source, so it's part of our overall thinking about open source software. Jason is not involved in that anymore he's just doing standards work.

Q: You run many different Linux and other open source operating systems in your lab. Some of them are commercial and some of them are community-based. Do you contribute to any of those projects?

In the cases where we have found issues, we have participated and we have given things back.

All the commercial distribution we pay for and it's all billed to Microsoft. We always have a fun time when we call for support, and they say, "Oh it's you, the Microsoft guys." But they're great they always help. It's all on the up and up.

The non-commercial ones we don't pay for. We do a lot of change quickly in the lab. We might use Gentoo one day and then it's gone, Debian the next and then it's gone. So we move quickly through things.

Q: How do you deal with open source projects like Wine or Samba , which have allegedly reverse-engineered Microsoft protocols in order to provide Microsoft connectivity?

I think one of the challenges is that a lot of these projects wrap themselves up in the banner of interoperability, but really what they are is clone ability for many cases. Fundamentally we're a commercial software company, and the way that we develop software is that we file patents and protect our intellectual property.

When people steal our IP that's a problem. It's not just that, "Oh they're out there, so it's all fine."

There is a very careful balancing act for us. With Samba I'm really familiar with that technology and I'd say that a lot of what they do under the guise of interoperability is clone ability. I wouldn't say it's a great relationship but we have a working relationship.

They ask things of us and we say, "That's our IP." And they say you should do it because all software should be free. Once you subscribe to that [Richard] Stallman vision that all software should be free, there is very little return on the discussion in terms of how productive it will be. You just agree to disagree and walk away.

Q: Does it bother you that there are open source "zealots" out there that hate Microsoft so much?

It doesn't bother me. You're always going to have philosophers and prophets. The market is making them much less relevant than before. I spend a lot of time with customers, and the last thing a customer wants to see is a prophet or a philosopher telling them why free software is their social responsibility when they are trying to run a business.

I don't see a lot of customers jumping on the free software rules of the world bandwagon. I understand Stallman's general position, but his view for the future of the software industry is fundamentally different than ours.

Q:Is the GPL version 3 good or evil?

My general opinion on GPL version 2 or version 3 is that it's the most restrictive license you could possibly have. So the idea of freedom and the GPL are not one and the same. It restricts the author.

When I look at what we do with shared source and the licenses we've done There, we've tried to learn from the best of the community licenses that are available. We've put a bunch of good licenses together and we've written really good single-page licenses. A lot of people like them. A lot of open source projects like them.

Q: Is Microsoft Office on Linux a possibility?

It's not something we're testing. Quite honestly in all my time talking to customers I have never had any customer ask me for Office on Linux. I've had lots of customers ask for other things on Linux -- lots have asked for SQL Server on Linux or .NET on Linux.

There is really no demand for that. And remember, at the end of the day we're a volume software company. Selling three pieces of software to three big customers is IBM's game.

Q: What's left to be done at Microsoft to further engage the Linux community and deal with interoperability issues?

There is inside work and there is outside work. The inside work is helping Microsoft grow in its understanding of how to improve its relationship with the open source community, and that means a lot of things.

And then there is how we think about community development in general. Are there areas of software development that we might want to do in this model?

The external stuff is really as much "bridgeability" as I can do. Look at the things we've done with JBoss and SugarCRM.

It has established very good relationships between those groups and us and also with our customers. There are more of those types of projects that we can work on.

There are probably only 20 open source projects that matter in a broad way. There are lot of other things, and we'll continue to try and establish bridges with those types of players.

There aren't black helicopters flying over; there is not some kind of conspiracy, even though Eric Raymond and all these guys want to think that; it's just not how it is.

We're actually just trying to get something working together and drive some change.