Bill Hilf’s interview with InformationWeek explained

I recently read an interview with Bill Hilf 1.As I read it, I realised that it needed clarifications to anybody left wondering whether Mr. Hilf’s answers are indeed objective. This article will go through the most interesting questions and answers, and will try to clarify some important points

(As a side note, having interviewed a number of people myself, I also get the feeling that a lot of them are self-asked questions. But, this is only a feeling)

The first passage I’d like to focus on says:

The software that goes into Red Hat Enterprise Linux, we may or may not compete with at a feature level, but the real value of open source from Microsoft is understanding how community developed software can happen on our platform and help grow our business as well as the open source community, which is how we started off on this whole path of launching things like Port25 and CodePlex, and which is why I submitted the licenses to the OSI.

So, Microsoft has finally discovered that good software does happen outside their controlled “cathedral” model, and want to be able to lure communities to help grow their business. I believe Microsoft has done plenty to push away free software developers; many of them frequently asked them: stop threatening them with patent law suits; stop trying to relegating free software development to unpaid, lone programmers in a loft; stop trying to shove your XML format down OSI’s throat. I can only second those requests.

Then, there’s InformationWeek’s question:

InformationWeek: Are there any specific areas where you would see Microsoft placing things in an open source development environment as a way to further its own products or to better interoperate with things?

I definitely cannot prove that Mr. Hilf wrote this question. However, I feel undeniably suspicious about the wording (“further its own product”)? I may well be wrong, obviously. Mr. Hilf however, provides an answer capable of causing a life-threatening stomach ulcer to many free software developers:

Hilf: When people buy commercial software, really what they’re buying is a guarantee. You’re buying a guarantee that what you have will perform, and has been tested and there’s someone you can call up, and if things go really bad someone’s liable if something doesn’t work. You’re buying this ecosystem of accountability. One of the challenges of open source and really the challenge with the open source business model is: it’s hard to replicate that ecosystem of accountability and that guarantee.

I won’t pick on the fact that RHEL is also a commercial product, and that what Mr. Hilf meant was probably “proprietary”. It’s an easy enough mistake to make. However, his statement is immensely interesting: when you buy commerc... pardon me, proprietary software, all you are buying is a “guarantee”. From what he says, there are two sides to his guarantee:

  • Technical guarantee. Software will perform, it has been tested, and there is “call up” support. It saddens me that some Information Week readers won’t realise how misleading Mr. Hilf’s words are. First of all, about performing and testing, free software can rely on hundreds of thousands of beta testers out there who report problems (that is, bugs and performance issues); free software can also count on thousands of people who, thanks to the free nature of the software, can modify the code and fix those problems. There is no way a limited number of beta testers can compete with a mammooth-sized community. About “calling up”, there are plenty of companies out there ready to support GNU/Linux and answer those calls. I will name two, on top of my head: Red Hat (for servers) and Canonical (for clients).
  • Legal guarantee. What I found really astounding was that Mr. Hilf then mentions accountability, an old argument I hadn’t heard in a whole. Microsoft is liable if things go really bad? Does that mean that Microsoft is liable if Vista doesn’t work at all? If a Microsoft file server crashes unexpectedly for no reason, and my office won’t be able to work for a full day, is Microsoft accountable? Why, then, nobody has ever managed to sue Microsoft on the basis of software product faults? And more importantly, why do they write "Software is provided AS IS" in their license? Mcirosoft can write on their licenses “We are responsible for any software malfunction”, and then talk about accountability.

Mr. Hilf, a few lines later, says (talking about Red Hat):

The community itself is the value of open source, not any one vendor who’s participating in it.

Red Hat is their #1 competitor right now; relegating Red Hat’s role to "any one vendor participating in it" sounds unfair to say the very least. Red Hat has a major role in free software, in terms of developers, software written, and so on.

I think a lot of people get lost in the software, the source code part of it. What we’ve been doing strategically is try to figure out how do we participate in that community as a good citizen so that we’re in that sort of same value chain. We did the same thing at IBM (NYSE: IBM). There’s lots of participation of IBM in open source, but there’s very little shared source code between IBM’s shipping products and open source software.

What is Mr. Hilf actually saying? I have to be honest, and admit that I cannot pierce the marketing speech. Is he saying that he wants to get a return from the free software community without actually giving any source code out? Is he ignoring the copious amounts of source code IBM has released? Shall I mention that IBM was crucial in the release of Apache 2.0? Shall I mention Eclipse? If I am understanding this sentence correctly, Mr. Hilf really needs to do some extra research.

Then there’s the next question. I am quoting the question because I have a strong, strong suspicion that Mr. Hilf “contributed” to it. You decide:

InformationWeek: In order to participate in communities like that, how do you cut through the muddle of the Richard Stallmans of the world and overcome the popular resistance, and also cut through the resistance that you’ve gotten from people like Red Hat who you might want to partner with?

This question is very nearly offensive. It takes for granted that there are a bunch of "Richard Stallmans" out there who, for no reason, are opposed to Microsoft’s attempts to enter (shall I say “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish”) the free software market. Then, it goes on implying that Microsoft is trying to partner with Red Hat, but Red Hat just doesn’t want to seem to care about playing well together. This is not correct. Microsoft wants to tie up Red Hat in an absurd “patent deal” with Linux distributors, so that they can claim a legal grip on GNU/Linux. Microsoft managed to close deals with struggling small GNU/Linux vendors (Linspire, Xandros, Turbolinux), and unfortunately a big one—Novell. The two most important ones, Canonical and Red Hat, said “no”. They keep on saying “no”. And they will keep on saying ”no”.

Page 2 talks about Samba. They are talking to Samba ”in very positive ways”. Apparently, Jeremy Allison would “attest to that”. Now... Mr. Hilf only quickly mentions the "EU Activities". Well, these activities are simple: Microsoft has been forced to release specifications for their protocols to allow free software to play well with Windows server. Microsoft has been fined millions of euros because of this. Samba is a main player, and well, Microsoft has no choice but playing “well”. I will try and follow up with Jeremy Allison about how cooperative Microsoft has been.

Page 3 is the best part of the interview. Mr. Hilf talks about having a "map" (which wasn’t correct, as Information Week pointed out); he then adds:

Classically, our preferred plan is to license our technology in a very proactive and productive way versus litigate.

Which doesn’t answer the questions: what, are, these, patents?

Mr. Hilf, please tell us. We all want to know. Please.



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