Back in 2005, Miguel de Icaza was lucky not to get kicked out of Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. The leader of the upstart Mono open-source project was giving .NET developers the ability to use their skills to make programs for Linux, Mac OS X and other operating systems, and Microsoft was having none of it — refusing to give the Mono project any space at the conference center to meet with attendees.
Fast forward nearly a decade, and Microsoft executives are singing a very different tune.
“Miguel is still the man!” said an enthusiastic S. “Soma” Somasegar, the corporate vice president in charge of Microsoft’s Developer Division.
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Somasegar made the comments in an interview discussing the company’s plan to open-source .NET and make it possible to use Microsoft’s developer technologies to make software for — you guessed it — Mac, Linux, Android and iOS. Microsoft is working on the initiative with the Mono community and the startup Xamarin, which de Icaza co-founded.
Microsoft plans to “work closely with the Mono community — get their ideas, get them to participate, and make it a joint development activity, hand-in-hand with the Mono community and do it out in the open,” said Somasegar. “We want it to be one big family, as opposed to us vs. them.”
The announcement this morning was actually just the latest in a series of moves by Microsoft to work with open-source technologies in a variety of ways. In fact, in recent years, de Icaza has collaborated with Microsoft and spoken at the company’s conferences.
But given the history, today’s news is a watershed moment for Microsoft’s historically rocky relationship with open-source communities, demonstrating just how far the company has come.
“We do not agree with everything Microsoft does and certainly many open source projects compete directly with Microsoft products,” said Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, in a blog post about the news. “However, the new Microsoft we are seeing today is certainly a different organization when it comes to open source.”
Of course, Microsoft doesn’t have much choice in the matter. The tight connection between .NET and Windows was forged at a time when Microsoft’s PC operating system dominated the landscape for computing, with the large community of .NET developers helping to create a virtuous cycle of Windows applications, which solidified Microsoft’s market position when the PC was at the center of the tech industry.
These days, that computing landscape is much larger than Windows, Microsoft is trailing badly in smartphones and tablets, and the company is betting, pragmatically, that expanding .NET will improve the prospects for Microsoft Azure in its battle with Google, Amazon and other cloud platforms.
The departure of Steve Ballmer as Microsoft’s CEO changes the tone of this discussion considerably. Even as Microsoft warmed to open source in recent years, Ballmer brought years of open-source baggage, thanks to infamous comments such as his declaration that Linux is a “cancer.”
There seems to be fewer suspicions about Microsoft’s intentions with CEO Satya Nadella at the helm.
There’s still plenty of friction in Microsoft’s broader relationship with open source, with outstanding issues such as Microsoft’s patent fight against Android device makers. And there’s no guarantee that the collaboration with the Mono community with go smoothly.
But in an interview today with the Register addressing that issue, de Icaza said, “It seems … everyone I talk to in the .NET group is very committed to do doing the right thing from an open source perspective. They seem to understand what the objective is: get .NET on the Mac, get more users of .NET, release .NET from the Windows chains. I think this team is ready to do open source the right way.”
Writes de Icaza on his blog, “This is a momentous occasion, and one that I have advocated for many years.”