Back in 2001, Microsoft Corp. chief executive Steve Ballmer called the Linux computer operating system a “cancer," reflecting the antagonistic relationship between the maker of Windows and proponents of the open source software movement out of which Linux had grown.

A decade later, Microsoft has a “senior director for open source communities," Gianugo Rabellino, whose job is to reach out to open source developers and reinforce interoperability between Microsoft and free software systems.

Microsoft developers have contributed plug-ins for Mozilla Firefox, an open-source competitor to its Internet Explorer Web browser, and written code for the Linux kernel.

Gianugo Rabellino, senior director for open source communities at Microsoft.

“Microsoft has changed," Rabellino said in an interview during a recent visit to the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, to spread the word about Microsoft’s open source intentions. Edited excerpts:

What has brought about this change in Microsoft?

First, a message loud and clear that comes from the highest in Microsoft: Microsoft over the last few years has changed and has become more open. And that is due to the way the world of standards and the world of open source has evolved. And of course, we listen to our customers, and our customers made us realize in the strongest possible way that while they still love us, they still want to learn other stuff. And it all needs to interact and interoperate.

What’s really in it for Microsoft?

Microsoft is a very agile company when it comes to responding to customer requests. The moment the customer requests for interoperability... every company follows the money. If you’re not interoperable now, you’re not in the market.

How is your team – the interoperability strategy team – benchmarking its progress?

I guess we will be measured by our ability to have a good conversation with open source communities and getting the praises from the open source communities for the work that we are doing and on the other hand, making sure that when we want to reach out to open-source communities, we do it in the right way, without getting anyone angry at us, or thinking that we are trying to leverage their work for free. I am happy to say we are having more and more people reaching out to us – as an example they want to run their workloads on Azure (Microsoft’s cloud offering) — and the acceptance of our contributions has been pretty high, such as contributions to Linux kernel and Apache Hadoop, etc.

Is there an element of truth in that – that you are leveraging people’s work for free?

In a community, the only way to get more than what you put in is by putting in more. While it is possible in theory to leverage the work of others for free, the best way – and this is what I keep saying within the company and it’s definitely not falling on deaf ears – is that it’s really about collaboration and working together, and building something bigger than what you could build alone.

There are those who advocate free, open source software for India’s massive e-governance initiatives. Wouldn’t that make sense for the government rather than purchasing proprietary software such as Microsoft’s?

I cannot really delve into what numbers make sense. But I’ve been involved in a number of procurement policies that try to carve a space for open source. I was not in Microsoft back then. And it’s really hard to make a solid case for something as broad as open source. Software is a complex beast. It’s very hard to make a blunt statement like “Buy open source because it’s cheaper." A lot of times that’s not the case. You need to consider the whole package of what you’re getting. But it’s clear that the whole business model is changing. The cloud is an example. It’s pay-as-you-go. It’s pay only for (services and storage) that you need and for the hours you need it.