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, 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, 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 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.