Microsoft's open source guru faces slings and arrows

Microsoft's Sam Ramji, wearing a Firefox t-shirt at OSCon, insists change in relationship between Microsoft and the open source community begins with dialogue.

Microsoft's Sam Ramji is like a turkey knocking on Thanksgiving's door. Ramji has the unenviable task of stretching his neck out into the open source world as Microsoft's representative. And on top of it, his employer has preheated the oven with years of hubris, sleights of hand and broken promises.

Ramji's Sisyphean task was evident last week in Portland at the Open Source Conference (OSCon) and will likely be fuel for chatter at next week's LinuxWorld gathering in San Francisco. (Disclosure: Network World's parent company IDG sponsors LinuxWorld.)

In Portland, Ramji, who runs the Open Source Software Lab for Microsoft and is the company's director of open source technology strategy, gave a 15-minute presentation highlighting Microsoft's work with open source, the company's first code submission ever to the PHP community and a $100,000 investment to become one of only three Platinum sponsors of the Apache Foundation (Yahoo and Google are the others).

Then it turned ugly.

The first questioner from the audience wanted to know what it would take for Microsoft not to claim patent infringement violations in open source code.

His inquiry was followed by whoops, whistles and thunderous applause.

The next question was about trust, as in why should we trust you this time? And the next referenced what the questioner called the "Office Open XML debacle" and accused Microsoft of using its power to buy international standards.

Ramji, dressed in a Firefox T-shirt like it was a virtual bullet proof vest, is use to the machine gun fire and didn't shy away. He mentions cultural change that he has to facilitate within proprietary-minded Microsoft, trust built within an 18-month working relationship with Samba creator Jeremy Allison and others, and the need to provide more clarity around patents and the company's work to address shortfalls in US patent law.

As he left the stage, he invited people to the back of the room for more questions, which becomes a six-deep ring of fire that lasted nearly 30 minutes.

"People stopped and wanted to ask more questions," he said later during an interview. "They thanked me for being here, appreciated the change agency work that my team has the privilege of doing outside the company."

Ramji, who took on the open source post in 2006, says listening is the start. "It lets us start to look at what divides us and what we can do to come closer together. What I said today may not be the be-all and end-all, but we have more than started the conversation, we are opening the next chapter."

That next chapter, he says, includes speaking and actions.

And if Portland is any indication, the speaking part is actually working.

"At its heart there is a lot of bad blood, but I'm proud to see Microsoft stepping up to the plate," says Ben Hengst, a Linux developer for Powell's Books. Hengst says he feels Microsoft is willing to change but that the open source community has ideas about how it should change. In essence, they are tired of being talked at and want a part in defining change.

"Animosity? Yes. But we want to get them going down the right path," Hengst says. "The biggest piece of change I saw was Sam on stage with a Firefox T-shirt and without fear of getting fired."

Ramji, a veteran of five start-ups who has a bachelor's degree in cognitive science and interests that range from history to physics, says he has a long leash. "What helps is that I have business responsibility. It is not strictly advocacy. I can tie what we are doing to good outcomes for the company."

In Portland, he announced Microsoft was contributing a patch to ADOdb, a data access layer for PHP. The code contribution to the PHP community was a first for Microsoft, and Ramji had to work with Microsoft's legal team to fit the work around the Free Software Foundation's GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL). Last year, the LGPL was a dead end for Microsoft.

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