Last night, SLUG’s monthly meeting played host to four representatives from Microsoft:
Sarah Bond, Platform Strategy Manager. Sarah was present to talk about Microsoft’s current position with OOXML, especially with regards to the interoperability with Linux.
Amit Pawer, National Technology Specialist. He specialises in Windows Server technologies.
Alistair Speirs, Technology Specialist — Office. His background is in Java and .NET development.
Rosemary Stark, Product Manager, Windows Server and Infrastructure Products.
This unsurprisingly caused much consternation and controversy within the Australian FOSS community in the weeks leading up to the event, and I (being its organiser, and hence the target of much vitriol) ended up spending much time gauging and responding to the opinions and ideas raised.
We wanted this to be an open community-led Q&A session, and to their credit Microsoft were obliging. Admittedly, I would have saved much sanity and hours of work if people had posted to the wiki as asked, but having to transcribe from the mailing lists to the wiki allowed me to think more about the questions and how they should be worded and ordered. I need no reminder of Microsoft’s transgressions, but I made sure to keep IBM in mind (as a company that was once considered an anathema to software freedom but has now largely reformed) and take an optimistic approach.
Pia was of great help here (as always!). With so many questions and only an hour and a half in which to ask them, we decided to cull the non-constructive, accusative and just plain trolling questions. By the end, Pia had compiled a list that was fairly encompassing of the major issues concerning supporters of competition, technology and freedom.
As I arrived at the venue, I found that our guests had beaten me and were actively helping to get the furniture into place. This allowed us to get better acquainted before the meeting. It was clear (and they openly admitted) that they had been following our open discussion process on mailing lists and the SLUG wiki. Really, they would have been daft not to do so
I handled the introduction, then turning the microphone over to our guests to introduce themselves. Sarah Bond launched into a presentation on OOXML, in the process answering several of the questions we had on the wiki. I left Pia to officiate most of the meeting, but I chimed in on occasion with both pointed and irreverent questions and comments that were not on the list.
We will be releasing the video of the meeting as soon as we are able, so I shan’t explain its contents too much. Some interesting points though:
- In the list of rules for the meeting, I put ‘Asking “Why do you eat babies?” doesn’t help anyone.’ I initially felt bad when I met Sarah and realised that she is pregnant! She was a good sport about it though, and we all had a good laugh
- In her presentation, Sarah mentioned that Microsoft will be releasing the specs to their binary Office file formats in mid-February (UPDATE: it’s confirmed!). I’m still not sure if I heard this one right (it’s a lot to swallow!), so if someone can confirm this I’d appreciate it. They made no bones about this being part of their drive to promote OOXML acceptance.
- Not new, but news to us, is the fact that Windows 2003 has a DRM infrastructure which they call RMS, short for Rights Management Services. I did cheekily ask them if the name was deliberate, and their attempts to seriously and politely address the question was priceless
Like with any other SLUG meeting, we went out for Chinese food afterwards. Three of our guests joined us (it’s a shame that Sarah couldn’t come, but being pregnant isn’t easy). Did we have dinner with the Devil? It certainly didn’t feel that way. Once we put our differences aside, we realised that we have an awful lot in common. We are all geeks at heart, and some of the MS people have and continue to dabble in Unix and FOSS technologies such as Python.
Were we successful? It depends on how you look at it. From my perspective of trying to build trust and understanding, without dwelling too much on (but certainly not ignoring) the past, I think so. Asking loaded questions and making our guests feel uncomfortable might have brought some short-term satisfaction to some of us, but would it have achieved anything? There were some inappropriate comments from the audience going in both directions (one of the loudest people actually seemed to be pro-Microsoft), but those people were easily outnumbered by the more sensible majority. My original fears of the crowd devolving into a senseless rabble dissipated rapidly, and I am very pleased and proud of our community for that.
I was initially disappointed by our turn out, but that feeling changed as the meeting progressed. Due to it being January, linux.conf.au being just around the corner (which siphoned a lot of our best and brightest) and the sensitive nature of the subject matter, we had a crowd that was smaller than expected, but felt more conversational and manageable.
If you were at the meeting, please let me know what you thought of it by posting a comment.
Sarah will be speaking again at LUV on February 5. If you’re in Melbourne for linux.conf.au, it might be worth extending your trip by a few days to see it. I would also suggest that you take inspiration from the list of questions that we have compiled. If our video is out by then, watch it to avoid repeating the questions that we’ve already asked (or pose follow-up questions).
My warmest thanks go to:
- the rest of the SLUG Committee (Lindsay Holmwood, Silvia Pfeiffer, Matt Moor, Ken Wilson, John Ferlito and James Dumay), for their support throughout
- Pia Waugh
- Anna, Matt and everyone who helped with setting up, packing up, recording and so on
- our guests from Microsoft, for being such good sports
- and of course, our community
P.S. Happy Invasion Day to Australians, and happy Anti-Invasion Day to Indians