Is Rabellino's new role 'Mission Impossible' at Microsoft?

Gianugo Rabellino is a man on a mission, giving full attention to open source software and interoperability at Microsoft.

Gianugo Rabellino is a man on a mission, giving full attention to open source software and interoperability at Microsoft.

The concept of open source and Microsoft may seem like "Mission Impossible" to some, but that's actually Rabellino's evangelist role at the company. He's newly appointed as Microsoft's senior director of open source communities and three months on the job. His work involves listening to, and collaborating with, various businesses and communities specializing in open source software solutions across the globe.

Rabellino continues to serve as vice president of the Apache XML Project Management Committee, a volunteer effort that's part of the nonprofit Apache Software Foundation. Microsoft rejoined the Apache Software Foundation in July of 2008. Rabellino is known for his open source developer efforts, as well as for being the founder and CEO of Sourcesense, a European company that provides expertise to organizations on integrating open source software.

He still participates on Apache projects and got his first direct experience working with Microsoft with the open source Apache POI project. That effort was designed to help Java applications read Microsoft Office file formats based on Microsoft's Open Office XML technology. Microsoft at the time provided funding to Sourcesense for the project.

"My decision on joining Microsoft as a long-time open source developer and advocate was clearly influenced by a number of efforts that Microsoft has been doing in the past few years in opening up to open source communities," Rabellino said in a telephone interview conducted late last week. "They went into my backyard by participating directly in various Apache projects. When I was working with Sourcesense, my previous company, I actually worked with Microsoft on Apache POI. This was my first official contact with Microsoft. I got a chance of experiencing first hand how Microsoft wanted to participate when it comes to interoperability efforts."

Microsoft hasn't always had smooth relationships with open source software communities. In 2007, legal officials at Microsoft suggested that Microsoft held 235 patents that were being violated by open source Linux, causing much uproar since the patents were unspecified. Microsoft even sued its own hardware partners, HTC and Motorola, over patents allegedly violated by those companies' use of the open source Google Android mobile operating system. In other cases, Microsoft has been more cooperative, such as its deal with Novell on SuSE Linux Enterprise Server, in which the two companies collaborate on software licensing and Windows interoperability testing.

The extent to which Microsoft engages with open source depends on the business case and meeting the needs of customers, according to Rabellino.

"The point is that there needs to be a motivation to engage with open source communities and with open source in general," Rabellino said. "This is what has been driving the efforts of Microsoft. One the strongest motivations, sort of the predominant one, has definitely been interoperability. If it makes business sense, if it solves a customer problem, then Microsoft will look at it. It's not a matter of open source vs. proprietary or commercial vs. noncommercial. Microsoft will engage in the kind of activities that give value to our customers. That's the rationale."

Rabellino works as part of Microsoft's interoperability team with Jean Paoli, general manager for interoperability strategy at Microsoft. Paoli is big name associated with the invention of XML technology. However, it's Rabellino who will be the day-to-day "go-to guy" on open source interoperability at Microsoft.

This week, Rabellino heads off to Europe for a four-country tour. After that, he's off to Asia and Latin America. In all places, he will be in listening mode and reaching out to open source communities and companies. It's not a one-way mission, according to Rabellino. Open source organizations can reach out to Microsoft too.

"From my little corner of the world, I am more than willing to listen to communities that want to tell me about how they can leverage assistance from Microsoft, about how they can engage with Microsoft," Rabellino said. "And I will do my share in reaching out proactively to those communities whose technologies are interesting to our customers. It does work both ways. Microsoft is listening and is way more open than people generally think it is."

Before Rabellino and Paoli, one of Microsoft's more prominent spokesperson reaching out to the open source community and interoperability was Sam Ramji, who served as Microsoft's senior director of platform strategy. Ramji has since moved on from that position and helped establish the Outercurve Foundation, formerly known as the Microsoft-founded CodePlex Foundation, which oversees open source code projects. Ramji currently serves on the Outercurve Foundation's board and is now vice president of strategy at Apigee, a provider of tools for the Internet cloud.

Microsoft also opened up many of its application programming interfaces and documentation of its flagship software products with its "interoperability pledge" initiated in February of 2008. That openness may have been compelled mostly by antitrust legislation and past litigation by companies seeking interoperability with Microsoft software products, or by Microsoft's need to address the interop problems of its customers, or both.

For more talk on Rabellino's open source outreach mission, plus news from the Outercurve Foundation, see this Microsoft-produced video.

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