I recently had a chance to catch up with the very busy Mark Brown, Senior Product Manager for the Microsoft Web Platform. I’ve had the good fortune of working with Mark in my day-to-day work as well as at a couple of conferences (DrupalCon SF and JumpIn! Camp Redmond), but lately he’s been heads-down focused on WebMatrix. I wrote about WebMatrix in its beta stages and purely from a PHP-developer point of view (here and here), but I know it has come a long way since then. In this interview, Mark talks about what WebMatrix has evolved into and what it will take to make it successful. However, what I found most interesting about the interview is the perspective Mark shares about Microsoft’s engagement with open source technologies and communities…

Brian: WebMatrix is all about web development, and lots of web development is based on open source technologies and open source communities. How will WebMatrix reach these audiences?

Mark: Hopefully, on the value it brings to web developers. It’s unique in web development. It brings together over 60 free or open source web applications. And it’s easy. Start from scratch, add html, add JavaScript, add CSS, connect to a database. Or you can start with a template and customize it and off you go. Or you can start with any of many open source apps. There’s a gallery of hosting providers, with a one-click deploy mechanism, all in one tool that also provides a lightweight html, code, and a database editor. Basically just install, add data, and deploy it, and you’ve got a brand new website. It has turned some heads in the PHP web application community because they remember how hard it was to develop and host on Windows.

Brian: Can WebMatrix be successful?

Mark: WebMatrix should appeal to both open source and newer developers. Microsoft has to succeed on the web. I believe it is one of the most important challenges this company faces. Looking back, the struggle between proprietary and open source software has been a part of this industry from the beginning. Neither model is going away. The sooner both sides see there is a place for the other the better.

WebMatrix represents many years work for us here at Microsoft. And it is a realization that just being a great web platform for our own technologies is not enough. Our success with WebMatrix to these open source communities and newer developers will depend in large part on how hard we work at courting them, unlike the past, where we either largely ignored them or done things that have not always have endeared us to them.

Brian: Like what?

Mark: In the web space, the open source web application communities are keenly focused on interoperability and standards, and we have struggled sometimes here. Also, over the last 10 years web development on our stack got increasingly complex. It was too difficult for newer developers, or others not deep on our stack, to use our technology to build for Windows. Still others who wanted to build for the web using technologies like PHP and had to deploy to Windows were often frustrated by the lack of performance and support.

Brian: So is our history the problem?

Mark: Our history is a part of it. It’s also hard to change perceptions, which has some impact on our ability to succeed. I joined Microsoft in 2000, at the height of the antitrust battles. I still have to answer to things that happened over 10 years ago. Some users don’t have all the facts right or they’ve ignored the past 10 years of good work we’ve been doing. When you admit past mistakes and take the time to lay out the facts for what we’re now doing right, people are willing to open their minds. More importantly, when you show them, they are often happy they no longer have to hate Microsoft and they’re even impressed that we’re doing things right. Best of all there is evidence of these things that we’re doing right all over the company.

Brian: Can you talk about how you brought WebMatrix to market?

Mark: I wanted to have an open source community approach to how we were releasing this. In the open source community you don’t have secrets. The openness makes it more inclusive. That inclusiveness excites the community. Reaching them required a great deal of effort since a lot of the open source web community isn’t actively paying attention to us.

Brian: What did you do for the launch?

Mark: Well, it wasn’t a typical corporate, top-down event. It was a community event: CodeMash in Sandusky, Ohio, where people gather and decide for themselves what to talk about. There were about 900 people. A small event comparatively. I don’t think at MS we’ve ever had a launch like that. It would be like launching a product at a massive user group meeting. For a product like this I felt it was the most appropriate place. There was a good mix of .NET, PHP, and Ruby developers. Just people in general who want to develop for the web.

Brian: That sounds like a great start, but doesn’t it take more than a launch to build community?

Mark: Yes. We have folks in the field who are meeting at their user groups, and in some cases they’re hosting their meetings at a local Microsoft office, which is incredible, because there has always been resistance to engaging with MS too much. The community organizers in some cases have been happy to see us to talk about how we can help them grow on our platform, or to sponsor events, or to contribute software and patches to make it run even better, etc.

It’s encouraging. It’s clear they are happier because they see we care about making their applications better and what it takes to make them successful on our platform. Now, they haven’t all said yet, “Oh, now I’ll do everything on Windows.” but it’s a good start.

Brian: What’s the response been to our outreach efforts so far?

Mark: People in the open source community are now reaching out to us. For example, to get SQL Server support for their application or support for other parts of our stack. In some cases a business need encourages them to reach out to us. So it isn’t always the case that we have to provide the encouragement or support. We can meet them halfway and work together to support them in their efforts, because obviously there’s a lot of technical work involved where we have to work together. The work we’ve done with the Drupal community is a good example: Drupal has seen demand from our customers who want to deploy Drupal on Windows. Some in the community have reached out to us to figure out how we can document and show the best way of setting up Drupal to run on the Windows platform, or leverage SQL Server, or to do other things that made it simpler and more reliable to run Drupal on the Windows platform. That is one of the things that shines through: having us come together with a common interest to work on these problems.

For me personally that is very fulfilling. I have been a developer on Microsoft’s platform for many years, even before I started working here. However I have also always been a developer and user of open source technologies as well. For my entire career as a developer what was most important was not whether it was open source or not. It was always about what worked or what my customers’ needs were. I am ultimately a pragmatist and it makes me happy to see others take that same approach as well.

Brian: Anything else?

Mark: Yes. While I’m glad to see many people being pragmatic about their approach to development, many in the open source web development community have told us in no uncertain terms: If you want to be accepted or relevant and ultimately be successful in what you are doing you have to contribute, otherwise you’re just an onlooker. We have work to do in making it easier for the engineering talent at Microsoft to contribute to open source projects, and we are doing that work. We have to. Our success in the web community depends in part in how much value we bring to apps. So the easier it is for us to contribute to them, the more we’ll be able to do, and the more quickly we can do it.

 

Thanks Mark! If you’d like to know more about the WebMatrix launch (including video), see Josh Holme’s write-up on his blog. If you’d like to know more about Mark, you can follow him on Twitter: @markjbrown.

Thanks.

-Brian

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