Andrew Tridgell, creator of the Samba server software used by free and open-source software developers alike, made an important contribution to the European Commission's defence of its 2004 Microsoft antitrust ruling at the Court of First Instance this week.

Speaking slowly and loudly with his soft Australian accent, Tridgell's testimony was compelling not only because it seemed to so effectively refute Microsoft's arguments, but also because of the way he characterized the world of software development and Microsoft's role in it.

Judge John Cooke, by far the most technology literate of the 13 judges hearing Microsoft's appeal of the antitrust ruling, asked Tridgell if he ever tests his server software, called Samba, to see if it interoperates smoothly with rivals' systems.

Microsoft's interoperability boycott

Tridgell's reply did more to illustrate the problem posed by Microsoft to the rest of the software industry than all the legal and technical explanations offered by the European Commission and its allies during the entire week-long hearing.

Once a year, he said, top software programmers from rival software companies from around the world gather at the DoubleTree Hotel in San Jose, California, for what they term a "plugfest."

The engineers bring computers and the software programs they are working on and literally plug them together to see how their programs interoperate. "We work around the clock for a week. We torture our machines in the pursuit of interoperability," he told a rapt courtroom.

"Can you do this test with Microsoft?" Judge Cooke asked.

"Yes, but they don't turn up," Tridgell said.

In an interview after the court had adjourned for the day, Tridgell explained that for the past six years Microsoft has boycotted the event.

"They used to come. It used to be held in Seattle, close to Microsoft's headquarters," he said.

Co-operation is the norm

But the software giant turned its back on the rest of the software community in the late 1990s once it had developed a server operating system it believed it could corner the market with. This marked a turning point for the software industry, Tridgell said. He spoke nostalgically about the days before Microsoft went its separate way. "It's not like it used to be. I'd like it to get back to that," he said.

The market for workgroup server operating systems lies at the heart of the European Commission's antitrust decision against Microsoft. Sun Microsystems, a player in this market, complained to the European competition regulator in 1998 that Microsoft was competing unfairly. That complaint sparked the five year-long antitrust investigation.

To remedy the situation, the Commission ordered Microsoft to divulge interoperability protocols within its own Windows workgroup server operating system. With this information, rival server systems should be able to communicate as fluently with Windows on PCs as Microsoft's own server system.

Two years on from the historic antitrust ruling, the Commission contends that Microsoft still hasn't provided the necessary information, and the Commission is poised to issue a new antitrust ruling against the company for failing to comply with its 2004 decision.

Even if Microsoft does comply, it isn't certain that Tridgell and others from the free and open source sides of the software community will be granted access to the information.

IP law bars interoperable future

At the time of the antitrust ruling, Microsoft said the remedy proposed by the then competition commissioner, Mario Monti, would result in its valuable intellectual property being given away if it fell into the hands of open source developers.

During the wrangling over how Microsoft complies with the ruling, the Commission agreed to withhold access to the protocols that its says must be licensed to rivals from open source and free software programmers.

"It's not certain Samba will benefit, but the IT industry as a whole will," Tridgell said in the interview. "That's why this case is seminal for the IT industry. The interoperability the Commission is demanding from Microsoft will allow the industry to return to the sort of cooperation that existed in the 1990s," he said. "Cooperation is the norm."

Windows 2000 for servers, and all subsequent versions, contain Microsoft's Active Directory which, according to Microsoft, cannot function fully with rival servers without granting those rivals the ability to clone Microsoft's own server system.

But the interoperability information the Commission, and the likes of Tridgell, see as essential for fair competition lies within Active Directory.

Microsoft's blue bubble

During its presentations to the court, Microsoft characterized Active Directory in slides presented to the court as a blue bubble containing a cluster of computer towers. The slides attempted to show how Active Directory works in conjunction with other types of servers, such as Web servers, and with client PCs, and how it wouldn't function if any non-Microsoft server systems were added to Microsoft's Active Directory.

Microsoft claimed that the same interoperability problem would arise if you tried to combine any non-Microsoft work group servers, such as ones made by Sun Microsystems and Novell, together.

But Tridgell disagreed, pointing out that Samba and Unix systems can work together without a problem. He also said Microsoft's argument distracted from the more important issue, which is that Windows on the PC is becoming less and less tolerant of rivals' server systems with each new version since the launch of Windows 2000.

"Windows on the client PC is becoming decreasingly interoperable and less tolerant of rivals' server systems," he said.