A friend of mine sent me a message on Facebook, yesterday. "Never thought that I'd see Microsoft and your name together at the same place," she said, referring to posted (and tagged) photos of me at the Microsoft Web Developers Summit 2007.
"Me either. Long story..." I replied. The story dates back 5 years, when I had conversations with my aforementioned friend's husband–who happened to be a Microsoft guy, professionally–about the things MS was doing that were hurtful to not only open source, but the software community in general, and ultimately Microsoft's bottom line (if they were willing to look past "next quarter's" earnings projections).
In the past 5 years, a number of things have happened to change my solid and negative opinion of Microsoft to one that is more fluid and better reflects reality. The first of those is that I've grown to accept that things often look better on paper than "in the field." Another notable change to my behaviour is a realization that herd mentality had set in, and that part of my dislike for all things Redmond was due to that being the socially correct thing to do (I've since mostly stopped reading Slashdot).
Without a doubt, though, if asked to identify a single factor that has most significantly changed my frigid opinion of Microsoft, I would immediately identify the Web Developer Summits.
Last year (in 2006), I was invited to attend the first of these summits, partially due to a logistical problem that left open seats that needed to be filled. I was excited to visit Seattle for the first time, and MS was footing the entire bill, so who was I to say "no"?
Joe Stagner, Microsoft's Opinionated Misfit Geek (and yes, his business cards DO say that, I've seen it), who has worked with us at php|architect, speaking at and sponsoring conferences, was my "sponsor" for last year's summit (and again this year). Joe's contributions to our conferences have been honest and forthcoming. He does a good job of balancing Microsoft's agenda with a fair dose of self deprecation that tends to engage our attendees, and (discarding the troll comments) I hear overwhelmingly positive comments after each time Joe speaks.
Coming away from last year's summit, it dawned on me that Microsoft simply isn't the same company that it was five years ago. Based on the candid information that Microsoft has shared in the past two Web Developers' summits, it's obvious to me that not only has MS' business strategy toward open source changed dramatically in the past few years, but there is a seemingly fundamental change in their actual philosophy toward software they haven't written, themselves.
Their corporate attitude–that is, at least from the sector that's focused on Web development–has swayed from a nearly-violent and extremely arrogant position of dominance, to one that is more open and dare I say even humble? Their recent offerings seem to be standards compliant (or at least standards-savvy) and more open than ever. Their past position of embrace and extinguish seems to have died with a past generation of middle management.
After seeing demos of some of their upcoming web-centric technologies such as IIS 7, Silverlight, and Expressions, I'm left re-evaluating my current preferred platforms.
Don't get me wrong, I'm unlikely to place a Windows box into production when not absolutely necessary (thank you Flash Media Server), but one of the things that I keep catching myself saying to colleagues when discussing the summit is "Doubtful I'll be using Expressions, but it does seem like the perfect Frontpage replacement for my Father-in-Law."
Even after being shown IIS 7, and having in-depth technical discussions with core developers, such as Rick James, the developer behind the IIS 7 FastCGI implementation, when asked "What do we need to add to IIS to make you use it?" my half-serious reply is "Make it run on Linux!" I say half-serious because I'm almost certainly not going to switch my production boxes from Linux, but if IIS 7 did, in fact, run on Linux, I'd be giving it some serious thought (that is, if it didn't end up having a high per-CPU cost, as an anonymous colleague pointed out).
IIS can pull some sweet integration tricks that more loosely coupled stacks like LAMP struggle with, such as deep kernel/filesystem hooks to determine when the IIS equivalent of .htaccess files have actually changed, giving them a serious performance advantage. There's also an integration point with Silverlight (the "Flash killer"), where the httpd can analyze, in realtime, the bitrate of the served video file and scale allocated bandwidth appropriately to maximize user experience, while saving on bandwidth (think: user watches 2 minutes of a 2 hour video file, and only actually downloads 3 minutes of the file, instead of up to the full 2 hours).
Maybe I'm just drinking the kool-aid. I'm usually more paranoid than that, but I guess it's possible. Or perhaps, if you put the Microsoft-hating tendencies aside for just a moment, you might agree with me that they're up to something different. They've certainly got an uphill battle, but at least they're trying, and I really do think that's what counts.
Thanks, Eric, Joe, Drew, Sanjoy, Tanya and everyone else who was involved in bringing us out to Redmond. I hope, no matter how hard to correlate to actual sales, it was worth it for you. It was definitely worth my time.