Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Microsoft finally committing to open source

Microsoft is known for keeping its programming secrets to itself. But under CEO Satya Nadella, the maker of proprietary behemoths like Windows and Microsoft Office is starting to show up in the world of open-source software, whose code is public for anyone to see, borrow from and tinker with.

Late last year Microsoft finally made itself an account on Github, now the de-facto platform that software writers use for sharing and working on open-source code. “Microsoft has changed as a company and is becoming more open in the way that we collaborate with others,” the account’s description reads.

Microsoft has actually been doing open source in some capacity for a while. It releases many open-source projects on its own CodePlex platform, though this is far less popular than GitHub. It has also had a scattered presence on GitHub for some time: MS Open Tech, a wholly-owned Microsoft subsidiary that works with open source, has its own account, as does Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing platform.

But the company as a whole has never been as fully committed to it as big-tech peers like Google and Facebook. (Apple, though, is similarly reticent.) And never has the entire organization’s commitment to open source been so explicit.
This might just be the beginning of Microsoft’s efforts. It is already starting to open-source parts of its widely used .NET software framework, seeing how greatly competitor systems like Java have benefitted from letting outsiders poke around in their code.

The open-source push suggests that Microsoft, once a behemoth, is starting to understand that it is now the underdog and can’t do everything on its own. That is even more true now that the company is cutting 18,000 jobs.

Still, opacity is so ingrained into Microsoft culture that any open-source push will take time. Take .NET, for example. “The majority of the worldwide .NET developer community is nervous about open source due to years of conditioning from Microsoft that open source is bad, dangerous, and anti-commercial,” wrote Sam Ramji, formerly head of open-source strategy at Microsoft, in a recent blog post. “We started trying to change that message seven years ago, and made a little progress, but even today there is a long, long way to go.”

Microsoft has indeed had a slow start on GitHub. It didn’t actually add any code to its account until last month, several months after the account was created. So far only one Microsoft project—its TypeScript programming language—is being shared on the platform.