A few months ago, Gianugo Rabellino traded his Linux and Mac PCs for a Windows 7 laptop, left the open source company he founded and moved to Redmond for a new job with Microsoft. His goal: improve Microsoft's credibility within open source circles.
As director of open source communities at the vendor most reviled by open source enthusiasts, Rabellino might have been taking on a purely quixotic quest had he joined Redmond a decade ago, when CEO Steve Ballmer was still spouting off about Linux being a "cancer."
But Microsoft has taken numerous steps forward (as well as a few steps back) in the open source world since those days, and Rabellino thinks the time is right for Microsoft to boost its ties to at least some elements of the open source community. "Developers nowadays are mostly to be found in the open source world. We need to go where they are," he says.
Rabellino's position is a brand new one at Microsoft.
"My role is to make sure that open source communities have a go-to person to talk to when it comes to having conversations with Microsoft," Rabellino explains. Within Microsoft, Rabellino is also there for internal product groups who want to engage with proponents of free and open source software. "My hope is that I may be able to bring the conversation to the next level.
"It's not all rosy. It's not all nice. There are some controversial issues," he says. But conversations are becoming more specific, which is progress. Instead of talking theoretically about Microsoft's beliefs in relation to open source, "the conversation is starting to move toward specific topics, such as 'How do I run PHP on [Windows] Azure?'" Rabellino says.
Microsoft has actually been collaborating with PHP developers for several years, and added hooks into Windows Server 2008 to automate the process of running PHP apps, says Michelangelo van Dam, who leads a PHP user group in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
But with Rabellino, Microsoft "now has what we call a very important person within the open source community on their own payroll," van Dam says. "He knows the way open source projects are being managed. He has inside knowledge about how to connect with people even if their contact information is not publicly available. He knows all the backchannels."
Rabellino, an Italian who was raised in Milan, started the Italian Linux Society in 1994, earned a law degree in 1997, and then worked for various companies until 2006 when he founded Sourcesense, an open source services company with offices in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Italy.
After serving as CEO for several years, he left in May 2010, a decision he chalked up to "phases in life." Rabellino spent a few months with his family before deciding in October to join Microsoft and move from Italy to the US.
Rabellino is still a member of the Apache Software Foundation and led the group's XML project. He calls himself "an Apache guy," as well as "a hardcore Debianista."