Microsoft Corp. courts open-source community with Vancouver project

Every week Techvibes republishes an article from Business in Vancouver.

This article was originally published in issue #1066 – March 30 – April 5, 2010.

Microsoft Corp.’s Richmond development centre is helping mend fences between the international software giant and the open-source software (OSS) development community.

OSS developers have historically viewed Microsoft as a major foe, saying the company, whose proprietary software products far outnumber its OSS offerings, thwarts their attempts to make software code free and accessible to all.

Within Microsoft’s new “open-source strategy” is work that the company’s Richmond development centre has done using City of Vancouver data to expand the catalogue of OSS applications.

Some developers remain suspicious of Microsoft’s new embrace of OSS, but Vancouverites and local software developers are among its beneficiaries.

Microsoft hired Nitobi Software, one of Vancouver’s leading OSS development teams, to build a framework that makes it easier for developers to access and use the city’s OSS data to build applications for the web and mobile phones.

The framework was built using Microsoft’s new open government data initiative platform.

Edmonton and Vancouver are among the first governments in Canada to make their software data available to developers, who can use it to create applications tailored for their city’s residents. Edmonton was the first North American city to use Microsoft’s platform to open up its data catalogue.

Vancouver’s data, however, can be difficult to extract and organize because it’s in multiple formats.

“So we just made [the company’s OSS framework] really simple for web developers to use in formats that they are used to and gave them all the application code needed to hit the ground running,” said Nitobi CEO Andre Charland.

To show off the framework’s capabilities, Nitobi built VanGuide, a social mapping application that Vancouverites can use to tag, rate and comment on Vancouver landmarks and locations and to navigate the city.

Microsoft held a competition among its Richmond development centre staff to develop new applications using Vancouver’s data and the framework, which is hosted by Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform.

The competition produced three new applications, including MoBuddy, mobile social networking software that city visitors can use to rendezvous with friends.

VanPark helps drivers locate the city’s best parking spaces; MapWay helps citizens find facilities like public libraries and schools.

Given Microsoft’s historically distant relationship with the OSS community, Charland was surprised to receive a call from Microsoft regarding an OSS project.

But Microsoft has steadily increased its participation in open-source communities. Nik Garkusha, platform strategy manager for Microsoft Canada Inc., said Microsoft has contributed to more than 300 open-source projects.

Garkusha said that contributing to open-source projects reinforces for customers the abilities of the company’s open government data initiative platform.

“Our approach is all about helping customers and partners succeed in today’s mixed IT environments.”

He added that Microsoft wants developers to learn and create by combining community-oriented OSS with traditional commercial approaches to software development.

Nitobi, which has 15 employees, will use the framework it created with Microsoft to generate more business from other governments and companies or organizations that want to create OSS applications.

For example, the framework could be used to create applications using OSS data made available by other governments in Canada.

“Nitobi generates most of its revenue from consulting, training and support – which we hope to do around this framework also,” said Charland.

He said Nitobi’s OSS development framework for mobile phones, PhoneGap, is being used by about 2,500 developers and has been used to create hundreds of applications.