Microsoft is spinning off its open source unit into Microsoft Open Technologies, Inc., and promoting open source veteran Jean Paoli to the role of president of the wholly owned subsidiary. The move gives the new company a measure of open source credibility and is likely to give Paoli more latitude in determining Microsoft's open source policy.

Paoli helped create XML, cementing his reputation among developers, and in 2007, he pledged his company's support for multiple document formats so long as the other format did not restrict customers' free choice. The masterstroke of diplomacy calmed a brewing rebellion among champions of the existing ISO standards format, OpenDocument, who claimed competing standards (specifically, Microsoft's Open Office XML) would sow confusion.

Building a Bridge

In an interview with ReadWriteWeb this afternoon, Paoli characterized the creation of the new Microsoft subsidiary not so much as a reorganization but a confirmation of the evolving role of open source development at Microsoft. Some will continue to regard "Microsoft" and "open source" as opposite sides of a coin. But Paoli described his new subsidiary as a liaison between Microsoft's corporate entities and the open source community, and more than the masked voice of a commercial developer.

"The business case is literally around enabling scenarios for our customers that bridge Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies," the new president told RWW. "That's basically the business goal."

One example Paoli cited was MongoDB, the open source NoSQL database system. While MongoDB is already effectively promoting the database, Microsoft Open Technologies is positioned to promote the use of MongoDB in conjunction with Microsoft technologies, especially the Windows Azure cloud service.

"That's an example of a non-Microsoft technology that originated with a brilliant open source community who understands a lot about big data, and we're very interested to start working with them to see how MongoDB can work on Windows Azure," Paoli said. "It's always going to be a bridge between a Microsoft technology and a non-Microsoft technology. Those are the use cases that we will really be working on."

Microsoft Can Now Speak With Two Voices

In many cases, Microsoft will have interests as both a commercial developer and an open source participant. The creation of the spinoff gives it a little wiggle room with respect to its open source positions. Microsoft Open Technologies can effectively stand for public and open standards if it so wishes, while Microsoft corporate continues to be the actual liaison for standards.

"Let me be frank: There are a number of differences between the process of developing proprietary software and the processes of the open source community," explained Paoli. "So in some cases, it is important to keep those processes separate. And in other cases, there is really room for great collaboration, interaction. Sometimes we want to keep things separate, and sometimes we need to have greater collaboration. This needs to be properly managed."

He cited a circumstance where a new community is developing around an open source product or technology - one with a deep technical brain trust and mixture of talents. Microsoft needs to be able to volunteer its participation, including helping to fix bugs and add features. "We need to be able to have it turn over very quickly, in the next 24 hours."

But as Paoli's response implies, the liaison with the community must not appear bound to corporate interests. That, too, will help expedite simple fixes and feature additions, and help Microsoft become perceived as an equal player in the open source community.

"All our customers expect the software they use will work in a heterogeneous environment. Customers expect their phone to connect to any cloud device; if you cannot receive your email on your phone, well, that's not good, irrespective of which phone or which cloud or which operating system they are connected to," Paoli said. "We live in a mixed IT world, and the goal is to provide customers with even more choice to bridge Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies, because that's what customers expect."