CNET’s Ina Fried late yesterday posted an interview with Horacio Gutierrez, deputy general counsel and vice president of intellectual property and licensing at Microsoft, in which he declares that the “war between proprietary and open source is a thing of the past.” That statement is going to get a lot of press, and a lot of comment, as will other statements in the interview.

Gutierrez is touting Microsoft’s open source distributions as well as its licensing deals with open source companies, most significantly Novell. This is a theme that Gutierrez has been sounding for a while but not in such a headline-grabbing way, here’s a link to the Sept 16 PR interview of him on the Microsoft site. Microsoft has been taking a softer line with respect to open source software, under pressure from antitrust authorities as well as the realities of the marketplace.

The statement about everyone being mixed source, that we can relate to, except that it isn’t in the future, it’s been true for quite a while. Arguably, the “war” between proprietary and open source software was over long before Bill Gates’s infamous remark in January 2005 that was interpreted as comparing open source advocates to communists.

When my colleagues and I speak on open source issues a standard segment of the “Open Source 101” part of the presentation seeks to give a broad background view of just what open source software is, and how prevalent it is in the computing environment. Part of the point we try to make is that open source software is fundamental to the operation of the Internet as we know it today.

Consider that the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol conceived by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN was developed collaboratively and remains in open source development through the World Wide Web Consortium. (Ok, we’re cheating, it’s not strictly speaking software, but you get the point.) Microsoft has been battling it out in the marketplace with the open source Apache server software for over ten years and has yet to get above 40% of the market. The BIND DNS software for resolving domain names is open source, as is the SENDMAIL mail transport software that regulates a good proportion of the e-mail traversing the Internet every day. These are just a few examples of open source software underpinning Internet infrastructure.

The other point that we try to make is that companies that think that they aren’t using open source software in their enterprises are likely wrong. The fact that almost all open source software is readily downloadable and free of charge means that individuals in IT departments can readily obtain products such as the Apache server software or the PostgreSQL database software and deploy it. And the recent popularity of the Firefox open source browser (now joined by the Google Chrome browser) means that open source may be on the desktops of employees firm-wide.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s been going on for years.

So what does it all mean?

We’ve been saying this for years, too:  (The short version.) Companies should recognize that open source is likely being used in their enterprises, and perform an audit to determine the what, where and how. Going forward, open source acquisition should be dealt with similarly to proprietary software acquisition, with approval procedures and documentation requirements.  Particularly since the ruling in Jacobsen v. Katzer, compliance with open source license requirements is important.

Keep in mind that if the pundits are correct, the current economic downturn will push companies in the direction of considering open source products as a cost-saving measure. If so, adoption of such procedures will become even more important.