I had the opportunity this week to go out to Redmond, Washington to attend the Microsoft Web Developer’s Summit at the MS headquarters. For this summit, about 25 leaders in the PHP (and PHP project) community were invited out to sit down with members of the MS product development teams and provide critical, honest feedback about Microsoft.
The MSWDS is one of only four significant annual events within the PHP community (others include tek, DPC and ZendCon), and this summit is a bit harder to get invited to. Unlike most other conferences, where all you need is the cash to pony up for a conference pass and a hotel room to crash in, invites are very limited and attendees are selected because they have had some interaction with the folks at Microsoft, and are believed to be leaders and influencers within the open source community. To be blunt, these summits cost Microsoft a lot of money, so they need to make sure they’re getting the best bang for their buck.
Keeping that in mind, it would be easy to assume that we were being brought out there so that Microsoft could pitch us on the latest and greatest Microsoft products, trying to get the movers and shakers of open source to drink the corporate kool-aid and switch to Microsoft products. While more acceptance of Microsoft products within the open source community is obviously a goal, they are making a concerted effort to learn from us – what we need, where they are falling short, and how we can move forward together.
Discussions and Format
The summit itself was a total of three days, with the last day being optional for those open source developers who were willing to sign an NDA to discuss some of Microsoft’s emerging technology. During the three days, different representatives from Microsoft’s product teams sat down with us and asked for our comments, thoughts and ideas about where they’re at, and where we think they should be going. We met with folks from the IIS Web Platform team, the SQL server team, as well as some representatives from Codeplex, Silverlight, Powershell, ASP.NET Ajax (which is not exclusive to ASP.NET, despite the name), and Bing maps.
We had a chance to air grievances, which was cathartic in some ways, but I think it was more important to us to be able to sit down with the actual teams who are working on this technology at Microsoft, and really get into the specific challenges we face. The approach was not generally pitchy, and with very few exceptions, a great deal of effort was put into making all of us from the open source community feel like respected authorities in our field whose opinions really matter.
Something they did this year which was apparently not done last year was to include representatives from well-known PHP-based projects who are not normally parts of the PHP community. I honestly hadn’t realized that the many of the folks over Joomla, WordPress and Drupal often don’t consider themselves as part of the greater PHP community, and getting a chance to discuss that with them brought up some interesting perspectives. I don’t think the guys representing these projects were there in an official capacity, but their point of view was one that had honestly not occurred to me before, so that was a really interesting and unexpected benefit. There was some debate on whether or not these types of projects should be a more involved part of the PHP community, with good points on both sides, but I think most walked away with some ideas on how to move forward in making those lines of communication more accessible and open.
Of course the ultimate question from Microsoft was “What would it take for you to switch to Microsoft products for your clients?” My smartass remark was, of course “A fucking miracle.” But everyone in the room knew I was joking. I hope. If we weren’t willing to work with Microsoft on improving their products to work with open source better, we wouldn’t have been there.
As often as Microsoft has been an easy target in the past, and as much bad blood as there may have been in the past, there are people at Microsoft that care about working with the open source community, and who are making progress to get there. It is our job as technology professionals to fairly evaluate technology and make recommendations based on what makes the most sense technologically and financially. It is NOT our job to make religious decisions based on zealotry.
That means that if and when Microsoft can meet my needs and/or the needs of my clients, it can and should be part of that evaluation or I’m not doing my job. Does that mean I’m ready to switch back? No. Not yet, anyway. But I believe they are listening, and I saw some things during this summit that make me far more likely to start including some parts of Microsoft’s products into the technology I suggest as being potentially viable for client projects, which is a far cry closer than I was last week. Specifically, some of the stuff I learned about Silverlight, Bing’s geolocation products and Windows Azure (Microsoft’s cloud hosting platform) was pretty impressive. As I get to play with these products a little more, I’ll be blogging about them with my fair evaluation of pros and cons, so stay tuned.
I’m also excited to see where the Microsoft Web Platform Installer product heads. Right now, the WebPI product is a very easy to use, slick solution for the less techy individual who wants to, for example, deploy a WordPress blog in 5 minutes or less and may not have the savvy to do the install themselves – basically a MS version of Cpanel/Fantastico, which we have had available to us as web administrators for over a decade. That product is less interesting to me right now, but some of the directions they could go in for more advanced users like us hold real potential. We had some suggestions that were well-received, and if they are actually implemented in the way I envision them, it could honestly turn the table and make some of the Microsoft web server products something that I could consider recommending, or even using myself. (I should also mention that Cpanel is the most horrific, insecure, hack-prone web control panel I’ve ever used, and I am NOT endorsing it as a solution.)
The reality is that competition inspires innovation, and Microsoft getting better means progress for everyone. I saw a post on Twitter that basically implied that open source representatives attending this conference were traitors or sellouts. I don’t see it that way at all. We have amazing open source products like Firefox because the open source community worked together to create a better product, and Microsoft responded by making vast improvements to Internet Explorer, building in more security and standards compliance. When we work together to innovate, everybody wins.
Another transition I’ve been seeing in Microsoft which was really made more obvious by this summit is that there is a less omnipresent feeling of “all or nothing” within many Microsoft departments. As open source advocates, we enjoy having choices. Previously with Microsoft, you’d get the most benefit from their products by committing to an entirely Microsoft development process (“drinking all of the kool-aid, since the best stuff is the sugary goop at the bottom”), with benefits sharply falling off if you opted to pick and choose. This philosophy has always been distinctly in opposition with the open source philosophy, and I believe was likely the cause for some of the distrust coming from the open source community. Seeing this transition into a paradigm of being able to cherry-pick what we like for some things and sticking with open source solutions we like better for others is a step in the right direction, in my opinion.
An additional unexpected benefit to sitting down with all these MS product people was that I got a chance to better understand some of the legal/licensing challenges Microsoft faces. I’m not making excuses for them, but I hadn’t considered some of the obstacles in the way of people at MS who care about working with us. Microsoft is a big target with deep pockets, and they have to cover their own asses. I was quicker to dismiss some of the corporate decisions as being “evil” prior to sitting down with some of them and understanding why they do what they do. Don’t get me wrong – some of their decisions (*cough*sudo*cough*) still don’t make sense to me and I believe they are wrong, but I think I have a better understanding of where they sit than I did before
Overall, I would consider this summit a great success, and I hope I get to participate again in the future. There are several people who really deserve a shout-out for all of the hard work that went into this and are directly responsible for it’s success. From the PHP community, Cal Evans was a co-host and an absolute rock star, always quick to make sure things ran smoothly and kick-start conversations and redirect us back when we went off on tangents. From Microsoft, Karri Dunn, Tonya Young, Josh Holmes, Peter Laudati, Lauren Cooney, and others were amazing. I may be forgetting a few – I am still a little wiped from the week and the traveling.
Was this an instant fix? Certainly not. Do we all have a lot more work to do before we’re “there”? Absolutely. But as Cal Evans put it on his own blog roundup, “The more people I get to know at Microsoft, the less I’m able to despise the company.” They took the time to find out what we think, even when it may not have been what they wanted to hear. Time will tell whether or not they actually act on it.
Other PHP Representatives Blog Post Roundups
I’ll be updating this list as more people finish their blog post roundups, so you can get take their on the summit. Many of them are far smarter than I am, so it’s worth reading what they have to say.
- Cal Evans (@CalEvans)
- Chris Cornutt (@enygma)
- Maarten Balliauw (@maartenballiauw)
- Rafael Dohms (@rdohms)
- Keith Casey (@CaseySoftware)
- Romain Bourdon (in French) (@le_vrai_roms)
- Marco Tabini (@mtabini)
- Sam Moffatt (@Pasamio)
- Helgi Þormar Þorbjörnsson (@h)
MS Representative Blogs
If you’d like to see more about the fabulous people at MS who are working hard to move the company forward in a way that works with open source, check out their blogs. I’m proud to call these guys friends, and as long as we continue to have people like this working for Microsoft, I think the lines of communication and cooperation between both sides of the aisle will keep moving forward.
- Dave Bost (@DaveBost) – Developer Evangelist
- Josh Holmes (@JoshHolmes) – UX Architect Evangelist
- Tobin Titus (@tobint) – MSDN Site Manager
- Peter Laudati (@jrzyshr) – Developer Evangelist
- Mark Brown (@MarkJBrown) – Product Manager for Microsoft Web Platform
- William Coleman (@will_coleman) – Developer Evangelist
- Lauren Cooney (@lcooney) – GPM for Web Platforms at Microsoft
- Jas Sandhu (@jassand) – Interop Strategy Evangelist
- Ruslan Yakushev (@ruslany) – Program Manager on IIS team in charge of FastCGI and PHP support
- Scott Hanselman (@shanselman) – Principal Program Manager Lead
Funnily, as I’m writing this, Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder has been on television, and the scene that just played is the one where Calculon says “I’d like to thank the academy, my agent, and most of all my operating system – Windows 7, for everything it –” at which point his OS locks up. Windows 7 is actually a great product, and I run it on my Mac using Bootcamp and VM Fusion, but I thought the timing was amusing.