Microsoft’s Open Tech head on .net and more: It’s about open, not open source


Gianugo Rabellino holds a variety of interesting titles: at least two of which would have been unthinkable five or six years ago and the rest put us in mind of the famous F Scott Fitzgerald quote: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing idea in mind at once”.

Wearing one hat, Rabellino is an old school open source activist: he was a founder of the Italian Linux Society, and boss of a pan-European open source services company. He’s held senior roles at the Apache Software Foundation, which oversees the open source software that powers more than half of the world’s web servers. He blogs about how much he loves FreeBSD.

And then there’s his day job. Rabellino works for Microsoft, a company which until recently was the very antithesis of all that open software stood for, and whose name may still not be mentioned in certain circles. Microsoft approached him, Rabellino says, four years ago to apply for the position of Senior Director at its new Microsoft Open Technologies branch: a wholly owned subsidiary which is based on the Redmond campus and has the mandate to “build bridges between Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies”.

Rabellino’s job is to engage open source developers around Microsoft technologies. It’s thanks, partly, to his work that starting up a GNU/Linux server in a Microsoft Azure datacentre takes more or less the same amount of time as reading this sentence. He’s been part of more than 100 projects since he joined the firm, and watched as the open source community has grown to just under 1 000 projects on Azure.

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Most famously, Microsoft released much of its .net programming framework under the MIT open source licence last year, and included the core execution engine, CoreCLR, two days ago.

Sadly, says Rabellino, he can’t take direct credit for that.

“I do think that we have been instrumental in helping and accelerating out some of those projects and building great relationships with communities,” he says, “We definitely helped, but it goes beyond us.”

There’s been a culture change at Microsoft, he says. Where previously there had to be a really good argument for opening up your software to outsiders – even rival teams from the same company – there’s a shift towards a corporate attitude that encourages people to publish unless there’s a reason not to. It’s by no means a journey the company has completed, but there’s been some interesting milestones recently.

Last month, for example, there were more community commits to the .net source code than those originating from Microsoft developers. Embracing openness is the only way to make sure .net applications can be truly cross platform, says Rabellino, and usable on Linux, Mac and smartphone operating systems.

Rabellino met South African journalists earlier today to discuss Microsoft’s open source strategy at the firm’s Johannesburg HQ. He says that although the decisions to begin opening up its internal workings were taken under ex-CEO Steve Ballmer’s reign, they have sped up over the last year.

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“There has been acceleration under Satya [Nadelle],” he says of Microsoft’s new leader, “He came from Sun Microsystems and spent most of his career at Microsoft in services.”

Despite his own background, however, Rabellino is adamant that open sourcing all software isn’t the way to go for the firm. Tellingly, he prefers the word “open” to “open source”.

The discussion about open source has moved on, he says,

“Open source was a means to an end,” he explains, “The end was control over our computers and computing. That changes as we move to the cloud.”

Today, Rabellino is a big believer in software as a service and enthuses about the growing portfolio of web and smartphone apps that have transformed staid old Microsoft Office of desktop days into the exciting Office 365 where everything can happen online, on any device.

“How do you gauge something like Office 365,” says Rabellino, “It’s neither open or proprietary, it’s a service.”

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When challenged that it’s most definitely proprietary software, albeit software you can use for free online, Rabellino is philosophical.

“If we link the conversation to it’s open if its open source,” he says, “We’re missing a big part of the discussion. Open source to me is something to me that only matters if it can change my mum’s life. Access to the code is one piece of the equation, but access to data and access to your data in the cloud is also part of the conversation about open.”

Rabellino’s comments are sure to frustrate open source purists, but today, he says, he’s more focussed on open standards and the ability of any service to communicate with any other than looking through someone else’s source code. He points to the well received Outlook for iOS app, which is as happy reading mail from Gmail accounts as it is with Microsoft ones as evidence.

“We need to focus more on openness of data – so if I’m shipping my data to the cloud it’s about open standards,” he says, “An open web is an interoperable web based on open standards, usable by the community and often open source. But throwing in a black and white line and saying if it’s open source it’s good – that’s not where the discussion any more.”

As an example, he offers up cloud storage and services such as Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft’s own OneDrive.

“There’s no standard for that yet,” he says, “I am really intrigued in terms of what’s next in opennesss and productivity. Open source has been mostly relative to the server side – Linux, Hardoop, openJS. It’s more confined to the back-end. I am really, really intrigued in terms of what’s next in terms of what’s next in productivity.”

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