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Satya Nadella talks up Microsoft's openness as it aims to grow in cloud

Jordan Novet
  • Open-source software once represented a threat for Microsoft, but as the company has recalibrated to focus more on cloud services, its has come to embrace open-source.
  • Microsoft is bringing its technology to more operating systems and enabling 
  • Microsoft is now a major contributor of open-source code on GitHub.

Microsoft MSFT CEO Satya Nadella on Monday addressed thousands of developers at the Build conference in Seattle on Monday with a clear message: Microsoft is open.

It's different from the approach that was in place under Nadella's two successors, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. In past years Microsoft competed aggressively against open-source technologies and collected revenue with patent royalties.

Under Nadella, the Azure public cloud has become a higher priority at Microsoft. Correspondingly Microsoft's attitude toward open-source has changed. Software developers might want to use technologies that don't come from Microsoft in their applications and while building those applications. Microsoft has accepted this reality and has become less headstrong about putting Windows and other proprietary technology first, as long as developers turn to its cloud.

Microsoft even bought GitHub, arguably the most prominent place where people go to download and contribute to open-source software. Microsoft has become one of the top organizations when it comes to posting code on GitHub.

Over time, this strategy could help make developers more willing to make Azure the destination for new applications. AWS has business from growing apps like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber. Being more open and flexible could help Microsoft land more business from hot new start-ups, and not just pick up business from the large companies it has been selling to for years.

On Monday Nadella made some more statements pointing to a continuing commitment to openness:

  • The ElectionGuard software development kit, which voting system vendors can draw on to make election results more transparent and verifiable, will be available on GitHub by the end of this month, Nadella said.
  • Nadella pointed to Microsoft's support of the ONNX open-source software, which enables people to take an artificial-intelligence model trained with one AI framework and deploy the model with other frameworks. In the past Microsoft promoted its own framework but changed course when the technology had less adoption than alternatives such as Google's TensorFlow.
  • Microsoft recently made the open-source Chromium technology, pioneered by Google, the new core of its Edge browser   and brought Edge to Apple's AAPL MacOS and other operating systems. All browsers that rely on Chromium will be able to tap the contributions Microsoft is contributing, Nadella said.
  • Nadella also articulated a vision of not having one single digital assistant to run your life; he talked instead about an "open assistant future." Microsoft's Cortana assistant, a major feature of Windows 10 when it debuted in 2015, will still be around in places like the Outlook email software, but there is room for Amazon's AMZN Alexa to pop up in Microsoft's Teams collaboration app, Nadella said. This follows Microsoft's move to make Cortana accessible to people from Alexa.

Nadella said that Microsoft wants to ensure that infrastructure remains open. That is, people won't be tied necessarily to just one cloud if they want to use AI systems inside applications.

"We are fully participating in the OSS community," Nadella said.

Nadella ended the talk on a fun note. He said that DONKEY.BAS , a game Gates wrote before the PC DOS operating system came out, is available on GitHub.

"I don't know what the pull request status is," Nadella said, drawing on GitHub parlance that refers to proposed project changes.

Earlier on Monday Microsoft announced a slew of cloud updates . One of them is better support for the PostgreSQL open-source database software. Microsoft also introduced Visual Studio Online , making it possible for people to use the open-source Visual Studio Code text editor on mobile devices like Apple's iPad.

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