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Make Web Not War” sounds like a slogan that an aging ad executive would coin in a desperate attempt to sound hip to twenty-something developers — most of whom have probably never heard the original catchphrase opposing the Vietnam War.

But whatever the origins of the name, Make Web Not War is the tagline for Microsoft’s strategy to encourage open source development for its applications. It has been used in the United States, England, and Europe. In particular, it has been used in Canada for community conferences held in the last two years in Toronto and Montreal.

This May 7, Make Web Not War comes to Vancouver in a day of two-track presentations and panel discussions, as well as donations for local groups to put on their own events around the same time.

The promotion includes a coding contest for applications that aid non-profits (named, with more ad-exec archness, “Code Your Art Out“), and is advertised by its own blog regular references on Microsoft Canada’s Port 25 blog.

This, clearly, is an event that is well-funded and professionally organized. However, so far, the reactions that it evokes are decidedly mixed, and announcement of the event has caused considerable discussion.

The local Drupal, Ruby on Rails, and WordPress groups have already agreed to put on associated events, and, as I write, the Vancouver Linux User Group is debating whether to host its own event. By contrast, the Vancouver PHP User Association has declined to participate for both organizational and philosophical reasons.

It’s all a local example of what can happen when Microsoft approaches the free and open source software (FOSS) community bearing gifts and making overtures of friendship.

Claims of a New Microsoft

In Canada, Make Web Not War is a group effort of at least a dozen Microsoft employees, ranging from evangelists to members of Microsoft’s community engagement, web and open source strategy teams.

The effort is spearheaded by Nik Garkusha, Microsoft Canada’s open source strategy lead. After stressing the Canadian origin of the promotion, Garkusha adds, “A lot of the work is really about making open source a first class citizen on the Microsoft platform — that includes web platforms and cloud platforms. Bottom line is, we try to encourage more cross-pollination. Essentially, what we do is engage with communities, develop some relationships, [and] work with influencers to help us get better feedback about what we need to improve and how to drive more interesting development.”

According to Garkusha, the previous two years’ promotions have proved so successful that this years’ should be larger than ever. He says that last year’s event in Montreal was the leading topic on Twitter in Canada, and points to new projects such as the effort to make the FOSS project Tiki Wiki interoperable with Windows Azure as an example of the benefits that can come from the promotion.

“We have had an overwhelmingly positive response,” Garkusha. “People are very happy to see Microsoft more involved in various communities. Very rarely do we get an email or a flame saying, ‘Microsoft die and go to hell.’ It does happen, but this is normal for any company that has the variety of different focuses and solutions that Microsoft has.”

Yet if outright hostility is rare, skepticism is frequent, and Garkusha and his team regularly encounter people who question their motivations and ability to participate in the FOSS community.

Mostly, he says, skeptics are reacting to a view of Microsoft that is ten or fifteen years out of date. “The reality has changed,” he insists. “There are new people at Microsoft, there’s a new focus, there are new technologies, there are absolutely new strategies, and the company has changed.

“The tagline of our Make Web Not War events says it all: the war of the platform religions are over. Right now, it’s more about being practical, combining various technologies and making them work for customers.”

Accepting the Olive Branch

An example of a Vancouver group that officially welcomes Make Web Not War is VanLug, the local Vancouver Users Group.

John Weintraub, chair of Vanlug’s board of directors, states that he accepts Microsoft’s overtures as sincere. “Here’s Microsoft, which is ordinarily a very proprietary-oriented company trying to encourage — and it’s very obvious from their domain name — peace between the open source community and themselves.”

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