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 🙂

Dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight / Sridhar Dhanapalan by Sridhar Dhanapalan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.
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