Open source expert takes on the hardest job at Microsoft

Apache, Linux fan joins Microsoft to boost Redmond’s open source reputation

Gianugo Rabellino traded his Linux and Mac PCs for a Windows 7 laptop, left the open source company he founded and moved to Redmond for a new job with Microsoft. His goal: improve Microsoft’s credibility within open source circles.

A few months ago, Gianugo Rabellino traded his Linux and Mac PCs for a Windows 7 laptop, left the open source company he founded and moved to Redmond for a new job with Microsoft. His goal: improve Microsoft's credibility within open source circles.

As director of open source communities at the vendor most reviled by open source enthusiasts, Rabellino might have been taking on a purely quixotic quest had he joined Redmond a decade ago, when CEO Steve Ballmer was still spouting off about Linux being a "cancer."

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But Microsoft has taken numerous steps forward (as well as a few steps back) in the open source world since those days, and Rabellino thinks the time is right for Microsoft to boost its ties to at least some elements of the open source community.

"Developers nowadays are mostly to be found in the open source world. We need to go where they are," he says.

Rabellino's position is a brand new one at Microsoft.

"My role is to make sure that open source communities have a go-to person to talk to when it comes to having conversations with Microsoft," Rabellino explains. Within Microsoft, Rabellino is also there for internal product groups who want to engage with proponents of free and open source software. "My hope is that I may be able to bring the conversation to the next level.

"It's not all rosy. It's not all nice. There are some controversial issues," he says. But conversations are becoming more specific, which is progress. Instead of talking theoretically about Microsoft's beliefs in relation to open source, "the conversation is starting to move toward specific topics, such as 'How do I run PHP on [Windows] Azure?'" Rabellino says.

Microsoft has actually been collaborating with PHP developers for several years (see "PHP user group lauds Microsoft's open source contributions"), and added hooks into Windows Server 2008 to automate the process of running PHP apps, says Michelangelo van Dam, who leads a PHP user group in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

But with Rabellino, Microsoft "now has what we call a very important person within the open source community on their own payroll," van Dam says. "He knows the way open source projects are being managed. He has inside knowledge about how to connect with people even if their contact information is not publicly available. He knows all the backchannels."

Rabellino, an Italian who was raised in Milan, started the Italian Linux Society in 1994, earned a law degree in 1997, and then worked for various companies until 2006 when he founded Sourcesense, an open source services company with offices in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Italy.

After serving as CEO for several years, he left in May 2010, a decision he chalked up to "phases in life." Rabellino spent a few months with his family before deciding in October to join Microsoft and move from Italy to Redmond, Wash

Rabellino is still a member of the Apache Software Foundation and led the group's XML project. He calls himself "an Apache guy," as well as "a hard-core Debian-ista."

"I used to have many Linux PCs," as well as a MacBook, he says. But in moving from one continent to another, Rabellino "managed to get rid of a lot of computers that were cluttering my basement," and has consolidated onto a Windows 7 laptop, an Apple iPad, and Windows Phone 7 device.

At Sourcesense, Rabellino partnered with Microsoft to deploy open source software for Microsoft Office in 2008, just a month after writing in his blog that "Microsoft is clearly struggling to find a spot in today's industry where software as such is getting less and less relevant." (The comment was in reference to a possible acquisition of Yahoo by Microsoft).

Rabellino continued to be outspoken on open source topics after accepting the job at Microsoft last fall, writing that IBM's decision to join OpenJDK was tantamount to "IBM surrendering to the Oracle bully," while "the Java Community Process is now as credible as Weekly World News, and basically nobody is safe."

If Rabellino is criticized for cozying up to Microsoft, he won't be the first to suffer that fate. GNOME creator Miguel de Icaza has taken heat from open source enthusiasts because he has frequently expressed admiration for Microsoft technologies.

"Miguel is doing the right thing in keeping the conversation open and not being shy of speaking his mind," Rabellino says. "I'm wary of building a world that is black and white."

Still, Rabellino admits to having some trepidation about the reaction his joining Microsoft might have caused. "It was somewhat in the back of my mind that I would have some ... being called names and whatnot."

But he encountered "absolutely no backlash" in private conversations. "As part of my decision process, I went to a number of people in the community, asking them if it was a good thing to do, to validate my feelings that this company had changed and moved on," he says.

Not only were his open source contacts supportive, but they also were interested in the job for themselves. "They told me, 'Well if you don't end up getting the job forward it to me, because I'm interested,'" he says.

Rabellino, who reports directly to Jean Paoli, general manager of Microsoft's interoperability strategy team, said he viewed his Microsoft interview as a two-way street.

"I was expecting to interview the company and make sure there was fertile ground for a change," he says.

Rabellino wouldn't have wanted to join Microsoft if he felt the company was simply making pro-open source statements as a tactical move to boost its public image. Microsoft's efforts to engage the open source community and allow interoperability between Microsoft products and open source software have to be "concrete" and "sustainable."

"To me, it's all about business decisions," he says. "We're living in a mixed IT environment. If you want to develop something that has an impact, you cannot discount the community. Microsoft has a huge community of developers, and has always been about developers. Developers nowadays are mostly to be found in the open source world. We need to go where they are."

In fact, that's one of the reasons Microsoft has softened its stance toward open source over the years, he says. "Not for the sake of change, but because the market changed."

After joining Microsoft, Rabellino went back to Europe for a week in late January and early February to meet with numerous open source advocates, including van Dam in Belgium. Microsoft and open source developers used to be "like water and fire," van Dam says, noting, "It's truly amazing to see that Microsoft now has learned the value of open source, knowing that open source is here to stay."

Microsoft, certainly, isn't 100% behind open source. Microsoft gave itself another black eye in the open source world by prohibiting developers from using GPLv3-licensed open source software in any application distributed in the Windows Phone Marketplace. Rabellino calls it "a complicated issue and an ongoing issue."

Microsoft hasn't followed up on claims that Linux and other open source products violate 235 Microsoft patents. But the company is filing patent lawsuits involving the Linux-based Android.

While Rabellino meets with PHP developers, you won't see Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates dining with Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman anytime soon.

Members of the open source community are still reluctant to make amends with Microsoft, and it will take time for that skepticism to disappear, van Dam acknowledges.

But for Rabellino, even in the 1990s when he was founding the Italian Linux Society, he says he wanted "to steer clear from the useless bashing and negativity." He chose Linux over early versions of Windows because he needed an OS that could perform multitasking.

"I think of myself as a positive guy, an optimistic guy. To me, it was 'I like this system better.'"

While Rabellino was fascinated by the grassroots movement surrounding Linux, using the open source OS was a "pragmatic choice." "I didn't have any ax to grind," he says. "To me, open source has always been a means to an end."

When asked if Rabellino might urge Microsoft to build Windows computers that aren't plagued by constant updates and can start up and shut down as fast as a Linux machine, Rabellino says, "You know, it's something we should work on."

"We talk to the product teams about that," adds Peter Galli, senior open source community manager at Microsoft. "We have no control over that. But we hear your frustration."

Rabellino's main focus right now "is to enable PHP to shine on our platforms." He also discussed Microsoft's own open source licenses, the Microsoft Public License and the Microsoft Reciprocal License.

These licenses offer more patent protection than the more commonly used open source licenses, Rabellino indicates.

"I always thought licenses are just a tool. It's really about being pragmatic, it's not about what license to choose based on an idealistic approach. I see a lot of good stuff in Microsoft licenses when it comes to patent language. There is an advantage there. Why choose one license versus another? Do you want to protect your code? Do you want to build a certain business strategy? Do you want to protect intellectual property? Enable communities?"

Overall, Rabellino believes open source has a great future. Aside from core software projects such as Linux, the participatory, community model is showing its strength in projects like Wikipedia, he notes.

Open source is "going strong," Rabellino says. "It's going to get stronger. It's going to be even more pervasive. We are entering the world of mixed IT."

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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